LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON

Here are David and Sean, cobblers by trade as you can see. 

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This was a very early shot that I took for a series that eventually became Working Hands.  It didn’t fit the series in the end but it’s still a small piece of social history. At the time, David was into his fifth decade as a cobbler; his five brothers had all gone into the trade and their father had been a cobbler all his life before them.  (Sean is not his son so the line ends there.)

You might think that is a degree of social stability which just doesn’t happen any more.  Yet I’ve been surprised, talking to the various tradesmen who have been working on the house we’ve moved into recently, how many of them went into the same trade as their father.

Here’s another example, kind of, anyway.

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 This is Paul the coal merchant (though his lorry described the firm as Fuelologists: it’s not in the OED but that’s a sad omission in my view).  For many years Paul had run a bar/hotel in France.  He speaks French well and his own sons are bilingual.  The previous generation had built up the coal business and when they retired he decided to come back to the UK and take it on. 

Most recently, both the plasterer and the gutterman who were working on our house had on-site visits from their retired fathers. Whether that was simply social or by way of a work inspection - well, I really don’t know, but I did find it kind of reassuring.

JOHN BERGER: WORDS AND IMAGES

 The Marriage Of Text And Photo

It was a bit of a blow when John Berger (Ways of Seeing), Robert Pirsig (Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance) and Leonard Cohen all died within a  year. I’m not much into hero worship but certain people are kind of constant presences in your life and so these three were for me.  I even wrote a haiku.

John Robert Leonard

Berger Pirsig and Cohen -

all in the twelve months

I was quite pleased that this does stick to the traditional 5/7/5 syllabic pattern – though some days I do think there is a vague note of E J Thribb (from Private Eye) about it.

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I read a biography of LC last year and wished I hadn’t: I’d never quite realised what a rackety life he had.  So it was with some trepidation that I picked up Joshua Sperling’s ‘A Writer Of Our Time: The Life And Works Of John Berger’ recently. It turned out to be more an examination of JB’s thought than an autobiography – though nonetheless it turns out that he, too, was something of a lady’s man.  What is it about these guys and women, for heaven’s sake?

JB is best known doubtless for ‘Ways of Seeing’ (both TV series and book) and possibly for donating half of his prize money to the Black Panthers when he won the Booker prize in 1972.  It caused quite a row.

He’s a fascinating figure: a challenging and visionary polymath, but also verbose, dogmatic and contrarian. Youtube clips like this one show him at his charismatic and charming best.   He is sometimes grouped with Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes as part of a triumvirate of authority on photographic theory (though they are all best sampled in small doses, I find).

Of particular interest to me are his thoughts on marrying photography and text - which is essentially what this website is about.  Rare is the day I don’t write a haiku of some sort and I did go through a period of trying to combine these with photographs.  Here’s an example.

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I had in mind the lovely Chinese and Japanese paintings and brushwork you see which often carries text.  The Chinese refer to the artwork as the host and the text as the guest.  Often the characters are not particularly legible and so the meaning of the text is secondary.  The problem with doing this digitally is that the text comes out far too clear and the fonts are too definitive to sit with an image.  It would be like  branding a puppy.

In 1967 Berger published, with photographer Jean Mohr,  A Fortunate Man, a book of text and photographs about the life of a country doctor.  This was an experimental attempt to match text and image creatively in book form.  Berger made the distinction between the private photograph which remains part of a private narrative for the person or family or group to which it belongs and therefore needs no particular explanation; and the public photograph which requires a context before it can make any contribution to understanding.  A Fortunate Man was his attempt to work through this idea not simply by creating a straight line of narrative around the photography but by embedding it in a radial structure of words in which neither word nor image repeats the other (as so often happens in conventional news/documentary/photobook forms).  He had had some experience of this in his work on television arts programmes and he went on to develop it in two further books (A Seventh Man and A Way Of Telling). 

We might see the text/image dilemma as physiological.  A photograph will be round your brain’s neural circuits and will have had its effect before a paragraph of text has even got its boots on.  If you are given, say, a two-page spread with words on one side and images on the other your eye always leaps to the latter.  But when it is done well, the text might be seen as slowing down the image by lengthening the viewer’s cursory glance and the image promotes the words by creating an interest in them.  That has presumably been a central issue for all news media since the invention of photography.  What about when you want to get away though from such a straight form of communication though?  What if the relationship of word and image were to be more irregular, non-linear or poetic even?

You would think that digital technology might have helped but in my experience it has simply reinforced the difficulties.  The template I use for this website makes it very difficult to insert text between the images on the photograph pages.  In software such as MS Publisher text boxes and image boxes are treated quite separately and you are restricted to a narrow range of fonts and picture formats.

These blog posts are themselves an attempt to put word and image together – though I don’t feel that I have yet reached the transcendental moment when each might inform the other in a less conventional way. I am working on it though and John Berger is a great help.

To end, here’s a photograph I produced recently which maybe could take some words?

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Maybe these? 

walking the streets

at every footfall

the city unfolds

SECOND THOUGHTS

 On Photography And Conscience

I may have done something terrible.  Since I am a second-born child however I am largely unburdened by conscience and so don’t really mind owning up to it.

(Point of Information: it is generally accepted by psychologists, I understand, that conscience in first-born children develops earlier and more pronouncedly than in second-borns.  My source for this is Mrs Barker – who studied psychology to degree level and based her final year dissertation on this very topic.  You have to admit that makes her a pretty impressive authority.  Since she is an elder child however and I am a younger one you can see how the argument might be deployed in her favour….. though of course she would never do that.)

My conscience is clear, then, but I must confide in my blog, nonetheless, just as the heartless villain in a gothic horror story must scratch out a confession to their diary……

 My series of photographs, Working Hands, as keen readers of this blog may remember, was exhibited recently at Beverley Treasure House.  In colour.  The first few images in the series had been exhibited there before as part of an annual competition.  Although I had shot them in colour I exhibited them on that earlier occasion in monochrome because I preferred them that way.  When it came to pursuing the series, a couple of the next set looked very fine in colour: these were of Liz The Baker and Annabel The Milliner.  My head was turned, I am afraid, and I abandoned the monochrome option and pursued the series in colour from then.

Fiona The Rush Weaver. I always had a soft spot for this photo which I took at Driffield Agricultural Show a few years ago. Fiona is from Wales and can be found on facebook as Peggy Spoons, if you fancy one of those hats.

Fiona The Rush Weaver. I always had a soft spot for this photo which I took at Driffield Agricultural Show a few years ago. Fiona is from Wales and can be found on facebook as Peggy Spoons, if you fancy one of those hats.

Just before the exhibition opened I had the chance for a free portfolio review (a short interview where someone of experience comments on a series of your images).  Just before I went in I was showing Working Hands to someone else whose opinion I value and she said that they looked as if each image had been taken by a different photographer.  The actual reviewer said they all looked the same (- and not in a good way….!).  I had to admit that I thought the first opinion was closer to the mark.

A few days ago all this came back to me.  I decided to go back to the series and convert it all into monochrome to see if I get them to look more like a visual series.  This is terrible because it stands the photographic process on its head.  You see a photograph in a certain way – you visualise it – when you take it.  You shouldn’t really go messing so fundamentally with it after the event.  BUT - you can see the results here (or just by going to the Photographs page of this website) and in the two photos above and below. I think the series is way better now.  The distractions of colour have disappeared and the subject is clearer.  I even managed to get a satisfactory sequence because posture and gesture stand out more.  I wish I had done this for the exhibition now.

When I was training as a lawyer it was once said to me that you really want to be making your first court appearance somewhere like Carlisle County Court rather than the Royal Courts of Justice in The Strand.  That way, you can make all your embarrassing mistakes in relative anonymity.  That’s kind of how I felt about my first solo exhibition – you really don’t want it at the National Portrait Gallery, for example.  I am deeply grateful to the Treasure House for their help, support, expertise and finance – but also for the chance to make my mistake in relative privacy. 

I’ve learnt my lesson though: never let your conscience get in the way of your art!

Roy The Bonsai Grower. This was Manchester Bonsai Society’s annual show in Lymm, Cheshire. I think it was Roy who told me you can’t go on holiday when you have bonsais because you have to water the trees twice a day, 365 days a year…..

Roy The Bonsai Grower. This was Manchester Bonsai Society’s annual show in Lymm, Cheshire. I think it was Roy who told me you can’t go on holiday when you have bonsais because you have to water the trees twice a day, 365 days a year…..

THOSE CREATIVE JUICES (2)

Have You Got Your 25?

Xiangdao, China, 2014. © PMB No idea what these young women were doing - it looked like a college cadet force - they went on to practise unarmed combat and bandage imaginary wounds. Categories? Military; patterns; uniformity; people in action; black and white?

Xiangdao, China, 2014. © PMB No idea what these young women were doing - it looked like a college cadet force - they went on to practise unarmed combat and bandage imaginary wounds. Categories? Military; patterns; uniformity; people in action; black and white?

Right.  So we are continuing from the last blog post, The Little Game (from The Online Photographer), and at this point we have tried to put together a list of the 25 most frequently recurring categories in our photographic practice.  The next step is here: you put the list in order of priority.  At the top goes whatever you think is most important and so on downwards.

This takes a bit of thinking about.  If you generally go out and shoot whatever is in front of you – that is, you  prefer not to preconceive subjects but to take whatever comes – well then, I think that one of your categories should be ‘Spontaneity’.  But even within that you may find recurring themes that give you further categories.  So the first part of the exercise is kind of retrospective. I found that I tried to approach the second part analytically but then it morphed into something more intuitive.  It didn’t seem possible to take all twenty-five and put them into a straight table – partly because there were overlaps and partly because some just weren’t that important in the scheme of things.  So the lower half of my list was pretty indefinite but the upper half certainly had significant order.

Now you go to the third and final part of the game.  This is that you take the top five categories and you concentrate on those to the exclusion of all others.  You might say that you don’t want to do that – but remember, I undertook this because I was a bit blocked and I needed a way of getting round that.  If you are not in the remotest bit blocked then you won’t need to.  Or the reverse may be true: you suffer from a kind of photographic incontinence – you take photos of anything without thought or purpose.  This could help with that, too.

In his commentary on part 3 of the game, Mike Johnston characterises anything outside the top five priorities as distractions.  For those looking to sort the wheat from the chaff doubtless that is true.  For Blockies like me I see another possibility.

In Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the narrator, Phaedrus, talks about a time he was teaching creative writing.  He asked his students to write about their home town.  One of them comes to him later and says she is finding it impossible.  He tells her to write about one street in her home town.  She comes back later: still impossible.  He tells her to write about one building on one street in her home town.  But she is still blocked – she can’t get a word down.  So he tells her to write about one brick in one building in one street in her home town.  She comes to see him a day or two later.  Guess what?  She can’t stop writing.

The lesson, it seems, is that too many possibilities will paralyse.  Focus is a discipline and discipline is essential.  Otherwise, it’s just playing tennis with the net down (not my phrase.)

Well, I got my five – which I will share when I’ve had a bit of think about them.

That’s enough for today.

Huayang Buddhist Temple, Mount Laoshan, China, 2014. © PMB. A propos of nothing - does that stray thread on the monk’s habit annoy you? Or does it simply point to the imperfection of all things? I’ve never quite made my mind up but decided to leave it, so lean towards the latter…..

Huayang Buddhist Temple, Mount Laoshan, China, 2014. © PMB. A propos of nothing - does that stray thread on the monk’s habit annoy you? Or does it simply point to the imperfection of all things? I’ve never quite made my mind up but decided to leave it, so lean towards the latter…..

THOSE CREATIVE JUICES

 Ah, the heartache that this flesh is heir to!

 It’s fine this photography business when the creative juices are flowing - but what do you do when they congeal? I’ve had this nasty feeling that my own juices were at least thickening over the past year or so but managed to displace that with all the interminable business that comes with moving house.  Why take photos when the loft needs boarding out?

But I can no longer dissemble.  On the Photographs page of this website is the work that I have been doing over the last two or three years.  It’s largely finished now and I have been feeling a bit stale and that I really need to move on to something new.  But what?

Fortunately, help was at hand.  I’ve been a keen reader of The Online Photographer website for a number of years.  It’s a must, in my view, for all those wishing to improve their photographic bandwidth.  The chap who writes it, Mike Johnston, has spent a lifetime in photography and photographic journalism so knows what he is writing about and knows how to write about it.  Many of the people who comment on his posts are pretty knowledgeable too.  I’ve picked up all manner of useful and interesting info there and, as chance would have it, the site came good again this time.

 So the question is: how to overcome Photographer’s Block? 

Digital etiquette requires I think that I should not steal Mike’s thunder.  However, if you look here you will see the first of three posts about what he calls “A Little Game”.  He explains this fully but the idea is to have a good look at the work you have done and then to make a list of at least 25 categories that you often shoot.  The categories, if I have understood him right, do not have to be subject matter.  For example this photo below could be: portrait, colour, square format and/or street performance.

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I set to with this task and found that 25 only took about ten minutes!  So I went back and kept going.  The next step in The Little Game is here.  But that and part three are for next month.  And don’t cheat and go looking ahead.  The whole exercise is best not rushed.  (Also - there’s nothing like a cliffhanger, eh?)

INTERNATIONAL POLITICS AND MY WARDROBE

 Getting Some Perspective

When I was a young chap and had pretensions to elegance I one day bought myself a very fine suit. It had half-lined trousers which I always thought was a mark of distinction. Though I say it myself, it drew admiring glances and comments and so, when I went to live in Afghanistan in the late 1970s I took it with me.

A funny thing about Kabul in those days, perhaps even now, I don’t know, was that you could buy Harris Tweed and other very good cloths there.  They seemed to be roll ends that had been sent for clearance.  So what you did was to buy a length of your cloth of choice and then take it to one of the tailors in town.  You gave them a jacket and/or trousers to copy – which they did, by hand, to the millimetre.

The chap in the photo here was recommended to me and I started off with a sports jacket - which he made beautifully. Most of the sewing was done by young boys who sat cross-legged on a platform to one side of the shop (though I always assumed they must have some kind of a sewing machine somewhere).

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 So then I decided to get a couple of suits made using my very fine one as a template.  I delivered suit and cloth to him one morning, he took some brief measurements (which he marked down in the book there) and told me to come back in a couple of weeks for a fitting.

This is where international history intervened.  A few days after my visit to the tailor the Soviet Union occupied Afghanistan.  The sky was dark with Soviet transport planes, the Afghan army was neutralised and Soviet troops appeared on the streets of Kabul.  When I went back to for my fitting there was a Soviet tank backed right up to the frontage of the tailor’s shop. Both the tailor’s and all the other shops were shut and the street was deserted.  Calamity!  Not only had I lost my cloth – I had also lost my finest suit.  I trailed home, despondent at this tragic turn.

The Afghans, I had learnt through my reading, are no strangers to invasions, from the armies of Alexander the Great, to the Moghuls and the British.  The country has been incorporated into  various empires and has been and remains the home of numerous peoples.  All of this must give a certain perspective on life from which I should perhaps have learnt a lesson.   

I cruised past the shop once or twice in the following days but there was no change: Big Tank, No Tailor.  Several weeks later someone told me the shop was open again.  Down I went and it was true – the tank had disappeared and the tailor was back at work.  I went in and there was moment’s silence.  It’s not easy to ask someone how they feel about their country’s being invaded so I just said: “What happened?”

He shrugged his shoulders.  “I took a rest” he said with a smile.

THE DARK ARTS

One New Year’s Resolution Fulfilled

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And so to the darkrooms of the University of Salford, (as promised in my Happy New Year post in January) for a two day course in the basics of darkroom developing and printing. Having gone back to film over the last 18 months or so I thought this was a natural progression: I hadn’t been able to see a way forward with digital and this looked like it might be a fruitful route.

After a happy and absorbing twelve or so hours a number of thoughts occur to me.

1.  This is an entirely different process from that of producing digital images. (Cries of “duh!” – but stay with me.)   It is so different that the suspicion I have had in my head for some time now – that they cannot both reasonably be called photography – is hardening into certainty. Older photographers may have consigned their enlargers and printing trays to some dusty corner of the loft with relief but for every advance there is a retreat somewhere and sometimes you don’t notice until it is too late.  That’s not to suggest that one process is superior to the other: just that they are very different.  This is A Big Subject and you have my promise that I will develop it dazzingly in a forthcoming blogpost.

2.  The mere process of producing a negative, contact prints, several test strips and a full-size print or two brings about a familiarity with a photograph which a memory card and software program simply don’t.  By the end of the darkroom process you are not looking at the photograph you thought you were looking at when you started. 

3.  You probably can’t (well, so far, I can’t anyway) distinguish a darkroom hardcopy print from a digital one.  I went to see a Lartigue exhibition a year or two ago and some of the prints were modern darkroom-produced from his own negatives; and others were produced from the same negatives but through scanning and digital printing.  I saw no difference and the young man overseeing the exhibition said he couldn’t either (notwithstanding the fact that the digital ones were very significantly cheaper).  That’s a bit of a disappointment because I thought I would be tapping into a rich vein of print aesthetics from day one.  I still have hopes, however.

4.  Darkroom printing is one of those activities in which time simply comes to a halt because you become so absorbed. (The darkness seems to contribute to this effect.  Space takes on a different quality.) This puts it on a level with only two other practices in my life; motorcycle mechanics and writing.  Since I gave up the former a couple of years ago I maybe do have a little capacity now for further escape from the time/space continuum.

5.  You don’t actually need much space for the activities in the dark bit.  You do need significant kit though: enlarger, trays, chemicals and so on. You can pick it up on ebay at no great cost but the practicalities of preparing the chemical solutions, storing them, watching their sell-by dates and using them at set temperatures and so on makes me wary.

The obvious solution is to pay to use a darkroom where all of that is set up for you. Even then, I suspect that the highs are higher and the lows are lower than the digital process.  That makes it look addictive to me – and like all addictions, first somewhere inside you have to want to become addicted.

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P.S. These two appreciating classics are my first darkroom printed images. On-screen two things are immediately apparent. First is that the backlighting of the screen lifts the highlights a little - so, for example, the chap’s head here has lost the highlight detail - in fact it has blown it -compared to the print in my hand. The other is that the overall tone has changed to create a harder, brighter image in both cases.

P.P.S.  The other interesting thing about the course was more general.  We went out on the first morning to shoot a roll of film in half an hour or so.  Obviously, in that time you just shoot whatever you bump into: buildings, environment, people and so on without much intention.  Yet when you have printed your contact sheet you find that you have several interesting images at least.  Where, then, does that leave intention in your general photographic life?  When you squint through the viewfinder and line your image up – what is your intention?  And is it a help or a hindrance?  That is something that I hope to be in a better position to comment on later in the year……..(mysterious, eh?)

WHEN THE PICTURES COME DOWN

Thoughts At The End Of An Exhibition

I never could find space in the Working Hands exhibition for this one. It was one of the sheep-shearing series. The sheep looks like it’s more interested in me than losing its coat.

I never could find space in the Working Hands exhibition for this one. It was one of the sheep-shearing series. The sheep looks like it’s more interested in me than losing its coat.

I was at a photodiscussion a little while ago where a chap said that he always felt a bit depressed at the end of an exhibition of his work. If so, maybe there are ways to counter that.

I am now the veteran of three exhibitions.  In the first two – as part of a collective – I showed pictures from The Smart Panopticon.  Then the most recent one was Working Hands at a local gallery.

Disappointment tends to be the result of over-expectation so what you have to accept right from the start is that the wider world is going to remain largely unmoved by your show.  You can drench social media if you like – and as my collective did for the first two.  We produced postcards and pamphlets and posters and leaflets, too.  We still have many in storage. For my solo one the gallery produced a poster for shop windows and so on – which was ample, I thought. 

None of the three cost me anything.  The first two relied on Arts Council funding and at the latest one the gallery kindly paid for the prints.  That is pretty rare these days by all accounts.   Generally, though, the enthusiast exhibitor will end up out of pocket. Why do it, then?

For me the two main advantages were that it is hugely interesting to go through the whole process – particularly with the help as I had most recently of a professional curator.  Who does what, who decides what, how you put a press release together, how you go about hanging and so on.  The second is that you see your photographs in a completely different way when they are hanging in that impersonal space for the public to see.  Your darlings are on their own now!  You learn a lot from that.

You have to balance that against the costs of printing and mounting and any framing plus publicity, ancillary expenditure and your own time.  You’ll also need somewhere to store all the prints when they come down.  Even with professional support it takes a lot of effort and so it’s not for the faint of heart.

It probably isn’t really a question of either exhibiting or doing nothing.  These days there are several alternatives: you have photobooks, digital galleries, websites, innumerable competitions and calls for work.  All of these, whatever their merits, present the opportunity for showing your work.  But the gallery is the real world with real photos, of course and maybe therefore an important counterflow to the digital tide.

I wouldn’t say I felt any anti-climax at the end of any of these exhibitions but certainly I had a clearer sense of my place in the photographic universe.  That was actually pretty helpful – as a dose of reality usually is.    

SKELETONS IN THE CLOSET

Displaying Those Family Photos

In the distant past before AirBnB, when I used to visit London more regularly, I used an agency which organised bed and breakfast with the well-to-do who had fallen on hard times and had to make a crust by offering accommodation.  So it was that I came to stay with a host who lived off Manchester Square.  The arrangements for entry to this mansion block were on the clandestine side - I was forbidden to use the bell and had to arrive at a precise time.  I soon found out why.  I was ushered through the gloom of the entry hall by the shadowy figure of an old lady gesturing urgently from her flat doorway.  She pulled me inside wordlessly and closed the door.

“I’m not supposed to be doing this.  It’s against the rules!” she hissed.

I was intrigued and even more so when I when she led me into her living room.  It was furnished in that mode of shabby chic which is the speciality of the  bourgeoisie.  The walls, however, were lined with works of art which were clearly not Athena poster reproductions.   They looked seriously good. But it was the photograph over her fireplace that most caught my eye.  It portrayed a man perhaps in his thirties, seated at a desk, pen in hand.  The 1940s décor and accoutrements placed it in history, but what was most striking about this photo was the fact that its subject was dressed in Nazi military uniform.  Was it the SS or the Wehrmacht?  I can’t remember.

We chatted over tea and biscuits.  She must have been in her 80s, with what sounded like a mitteleuropean accent.  Mostly she talked about the lease on her flat which was coming to an end.  She was furious that it was not to be renewed and had hatched a cunning plan to frustrate her landlord – a plan which, if I followed its many twists and turns correctly, involved her own death.  This account took many detours from which I deduced that she was a member of some kind of Carpathian noble family who had fled their estate on the communist takeover after the war.

She had obviously clocked my interest in her art and launched into the story of how she had managed to get it out of – was it Rumania or Yugoslavia somewhere?  She had been blocked by the authorities at every turn.

“Well, what would you have done?” she asked triumphantly at one point.

I tried to look like a man who would have had several solutions to the problem.  But she pressed on regardless.

“Well, it’s obvious!” she cried.  “I gave them to the British ambassador and told him to send them in the diplomatic bag!”

Of course.  She had clearly had impeccable connections.

I stayed listening as long as I thought polite before going out to eat.  She was a wildly entertaining talker.  When she let me out the following morning I had to leave as furtively as I had arrived.

That photograph stuck in my mind but it was not until a year or two later that a newspaper obituary caught my eye.  The Countess so-and-so of somewhere.  Bit by bit as I read I realised it was her.  Much of what I had surmised turned out to be roughly correct.  And she had indeed been a bit dotty in that aristocratic way.  Apparently, if you were invited by her for dinner you always got exactly the same pasta meal which she went out and bought at Waitrose, microwaved and served up. 

Even better, that photo figured.  Her husband had indeed been a high-ranking officer in German military intelligence.  He had also been a British agent.  That is how they got to the UK after the war.  Nonetheless, to display the photograph on the fireplace was an act of some bravura.  Your eye swivelled towards it the moment you entered the room.  It was both distraction and focus.  Now I wish I had grasped the nettle and asked her about it.  Would she have told me that he had been a spy?  Would I have believed her?  These are murky waters after all. But is that not why we display family photographs: so that questions may be asked of us?

If I had asked I can’t help thinking that I would have closed some kind of circuit: the photograph would have served its purpose.  She would have launched unstoppably into another stream of history and I am sure I would have been fascinated.  She was a charming old lady and the photograph was another way to charm her visitors.  I really should have asked.

 

 

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

 

 Goals Or Directions?

A Buddhist epigram I once read goes as follows:

Question: “How do you paint the perfect picture?”

Answer: “First you make yourself perfect and then you just paint naturally.”

I decided to apply that to photography – though naturally enough I’m still working on the first half of the project.  What I like about it is the idea that a  photograph might not be the product of circumstances but rather more a state of mind.  That state of mind depends on careful cultivation but cannot do without skilful means either.

So with that general idea of working on myself photographically I have signed on for a few courses in 2019.  First on the skilful means side is a darkroom course at Salford University where in a few weeks I should be able to get the basics of the dark art of wet printing.  Second is a weekend course in March in making traditional cloth-bound hardback notebooks at Hot Bed Press.  I am hoping to find a way of combining photograph and word which I can then put together through this kind of bookmaking.  Then for the cultivation of the mind side I am taking an online course in modern western architecture – which means, apparently, from the Victorian period to the present day.  I investigated this a bit in my photoseries The Smart Panopticon and now I am so intrigued by the whole subject that I feel I need to investigate it more deeply – not so much with the idea of gaining knowledge as with immersing myself in form, line, shape, light, space and solidity.  That is all very photographic.

Maybe the outcome of all this will be a home-made, self-printed photobook on modern architecture but that is not the plan.  I don’t have a plan. Direction is good but goals are tyrants.  I just want to see where this goes with that Buddhist insight in mind.  Obviously, you are not making yourself perfect but you are working on yourself which is the important thing.

MORE SHADOWS, LESS LIGHT

Back To Tanizaki

The Tanizaki book that I wrote about a couple of posts below continues to smoke around my brain.  I see a link with something that Barthes says in La Chambre Claire: “I  have always had the impression that in any photograph, colour is a coating applied after the event to the original truth of black and white.”

You might think that the opposite was true: that black and white is a style applied to a world of colour.  Don’t you see colour all around you after all?

Yet when I get up each morning for my meditation session something curious happens.  Here in northern Europe at around 6.30 am in winter it is dark.  I settle into meditation and the world that I see through my half-open eyes is monochrome. 

My rudimentary understanding of the physiology of sight is that in low light levels the eye makes use of rod cells – which do not perceive colour, only black and white.   The greyscale in between those two extremes is the rod cells’ version of colour, known as “ghosting in”.  As the meditative minutes pass, the sun comes up and, even on a rainy day, light levels rise.  Cone cells then come into play and replace the monochrome of the rod cells with colour.  The same happens in reverse in the evening but artificial illumination masks it.  For that reason it is much clearer in the countryside than urban areas.  So we see in monochrome or colour depending on the amount of light available.

The decline of black and white photography might be seen as coinciding with the increasing use of electric light.  Since we are drenching the world in colour that is what we replicate photographically.  In older buildings the subtlety of shadow has profound effects.  In churches, castles, old houses, old farm buildings the eye seems often to revert to the monochrome world.  Other senses are brought into play then.  It is a more complete world because it does not rely on acute vision alone.

Seen in this way, colour photography is not a technological advance producing a more accurate view of the world.  It is a regime whose account of the world is a construction.  Your saturation slider therefore has its Faustian aspect: you can have fun - but the price you pay is dazzling.   Tanizaki’s lament for the shadows of his youth and Barthes’ insight into the nature of photography lead us inexorably to this conclusion.

MANDY BARKER

Talking Rubbish

Great talk by Mandy Barker at Redeye this week. She is now well known for her photographic work documenting the extent of plastic waste in the world’s oceans.  The resulting images achieve that elusive photographic goal of taking a large real-world issue and condensing it – without diminishing it – into a single photograph.

PENALTY - The World © Mandy Barker

PENALTY - The World © Mandy Barker

  The talk  was a bit of a master class in process: in how to take an idea and turn it into a photographic project.  She explained how she took the initial concern and started to work on it several years ago with a series called Indefinite.  This developed as it went along.  Several series, more ambitious and wider in scope both photographically and logistically, followed: Soup; Shoal; and Penalty (see image right). The most recent is Beyond Drifting which uses a 19th century botany manual as a model for images of plastic detritus shot to look like plankton.  In all of this work the ugliness of decaying plastic is transformed into graphic images that draw the eye and intrigue the mind without ever minimising that ugliness.  Its construction of shape from detail is almost pointilliste.

Mandy shared research methods, photographic techniques, workbooks and happy accidents in what I felt was an act of great generosity.  I couldn’t make my mind up whether she is an environmentalist with a camera or a photographer with environmental concerns but either way you couldn’t help but be inspired.

WORKING HANDS

Conception, Gestation, Delivery.

Rebecca The Harpist (from the series Working Hands)

Rebecca The Harpist (from the series Working Hands)

After a good long cycle ride this summer my wife and I stopped at a local café for an ice cream.  It was crowded and so I asked a young woman if we could use the spare chairs at her table.  We fell into conversation on numerous topics, one of which was her occupation.  It turned out that she was a harpist – and you don’t meet many of those.  As I talked to her about that it dawned on me that I might have a subject here for my Working Hands series. 

Fast forward a few weeks and I arrived at her flat for the photo session.  I had three cameras with me.  One was my standard digital camera.  One was a film SLR.  And one was my Hasselblad MF.  I am not usually incompetent physically but I pressed a stray button on the digital and found myself in a menu that I simply could not get out of.  Then the back on the Hasselblad refused to go back on after I reloaded.  So it was all down to the little Olympus.  We had to go outside because there wasn’t enough light in the flat.  Then the sky clouded over and a few drops of rain fell.  It was all getting a bit fraught.  What do you do in those circumstances?  The only thing you can do is keep going, it seems to me. 

The session kind of reaffirmed my faith in film.  I realised that the digital screen, the constant looking at images as you take them is a double-edged sword.  So many photos are like wine: they seem to develop as time passes. With film, that period between exposure and development is very significant.  There is no rush to judgment as there so often is with digital.  Your memory of what you saw through the viewfinder has time to mature and you can look with more equanimity at the results when you eventually get them.

There were several images of Rebecca that I could have used for the series but this is the one I eventually chose.  Others in the series show the eye fixed on the hand – which was my intention.  But in this one, as she is looking down, I think you get an idea more of the invisible mind/body connection.

The Working Hands series is being exhibited from November 10th to January 26th at The Treasure House, Champney Road, Beverley, East Yorkshire.  Free entrance!

GETTING OUT OF THE WAY

 What Is The Photographer’s Input?

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A camera is a machine which can stop time and frame space.  A photograph is an image of time stopped and space framed.  That seems to be about it.  The artist might say: “This is how I see it”.  The photographer might say: “This is how it was”.  There may be a little overlap but not enough to suggest that the two are embarked on a common endeavour.   The photograph seems to me to be more like a short poem, or a paragraph that you read somewhere and try to remember because it strikes a chord and sends something wraith-like smoking through your brain.  You try to pin it down but you can’t – any more than you can pin down the essence of your own thoughts.  Or maybe a pop song would be a better simile: something potent but ephemeral.  Some people like to discuss photography’s status as Art and good luck to them: but I feel no impulse to do that. 

I took the photograph above when I was in Paris recently.  Naturally, you can’t be in Paris, camera in hand, and not think of the great French photographers.  They seemed to understand that a photograph is not a message from the photographer but a message from the world.  So they got out of the way of the world’s message.   I have no doubt that their ghosts were in the back of my mind as I peered over this balcony.    Snap, I went.  Time stopped and space framed. 

THE APPROACHABLE PHOTOGRAPH

Having An Opinion Is Part Of The Fun

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My friend Joseph was thinking of selling a couple of medium-format cameras recently.  His kit seems to change regularly as it follows the ebbs and flows of his enthusiasms.  Personally, I try not to think too much about the hardware because I find it distracts me.  Plus – the solution to the creative problems we come across in photography is seldom technical.  But I had been thinking about medium format for a while and from what I understood the best value for money out there is generally seen to be a Bronica.  So that is what I was vaguely considering until Joseph mentioned that he was getting rid of his Hasselblad.

So I borrowed it.  What better way of deciding whether it is good for you or not?   Joseph came round and we sat in my garden in the sunshine and he talked me through the basics: how to put the film and take it out (obviously) and one or two idiosyncracies of the model.  You wouldn’t call it a big camera but it has a certain presence in your hand, a weight and a bulk that is entirely different from the kind of smaller kit that I am used to.  And one glance down into the magical garden of the viewfinder convinced me that this was something truly different.  There is a kind of 3D effect that draws the eye in to what seems like another world – an effect enhanced by the reversal of the image in that small square.

Medium format is not that cheap when you start adding it all up.  At least 50 pence to buy each negative on the roll, the same again for developing and same again for scanning. So some £1.50 or more per shot.  It goes against the grain then to waste it by shooting more or less anything just to find out what it looks like.  At which point – enter Steve who had come round to my house to do some building work.  He was sitting in his van one day and the framing of the van door and his posture in it just made me think of the Hasselblad so I shot inside to get it.  The photo above is the result.

I have to say that I was pleased with it.  I shouldn’t praise my own work of course, but it has a simplicity and balance that to me is part of the essence of a good photo.  Plus it is recognisably a black and white Steve.   Colour just isn't the same for portraits.  There is only a partial recognisability which I think comes from an instinctive misreading of colour in the photo.  For a split second we know it is not real and then a cultural reading takes over and we ignore that concern.

So, I patted myself on the back: “Nice photo!”

A little while later Steve’s wife, Pam, was also round at the house.  For some reason the photograph was mentioned and I offered to show it to her.  Out came the laptop and I pulled it up onto the screen and then sat back modestly and awaited her cry of joyful recognition.

And waited.  There was complete silence for several seconds and then she spoke one word.

“Jowly”, she said.

I looked at the photo and then back at her.  Jowly?  What about the simplicity?  What about the balance?  I sought to shift her view by pointing them out to her.  She looked again and shook her head: “Jowly” she repeated.

It was a difficult moment socially as she, Steve and I sat round the laptop.  There was nothing to be done I concluded.  The unstoppable momentum of my creative vision had hit the immovable buffers of her opinion.  We shuffled our feet uncomfortably for a few moments and then passed on to other things, the photo forgotten.

It's great that photography is so approachable. Because, while few people other than those who take an interest in such matters would venture an opinion on a sculpture or painting or other work of fine art, virtually everyone feels confident in venturing an opinion about a photograph - especially when the subject is familiar to them, whether it be place, person, view or whatever.  

Pam didn’t like the photo because it didn’t reflect the Steve she knew.  I liked the photo because I thought it contained certain characteristics that I value in a photograph.  That instant engagement is so refreshing.  You can change your mind every day if you want.  After all, it's only a photo.

Below is Malcolm, Steve’s mate (in the professional as well as the social sense).  Unfortunately, we’ll never know what his wife thought of the shot because she didn’t come round that day.  Maybe she'd have said:  "How come you got his ears in focus and not his nose?"  Hmmmm.......  #workingonmyhasselbladtechnique

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IN THE ALCHEMIST'S CHAMBER

Working Hands And Loose Tongues

French Polisher's Window (Outside)

French Polisher's Window (Outside)

I spent much of the winter with the uncomfortable feeling that I really should be adding to my series “Working Hands” since it is due to be exhibited at a small gallery in November, but having just moved to a new area it was a bit difficult to pick up the reins again.  I’ve moved from a small town to a big city and the kind of working hands you see in one are not like those you see in the other.

One morning however, when out on my travels, I happened upon a perfect little french polisher’s workshop in a small coastal town.  It wasn’t open but I hung around until a chap appeared and then made my pitch.  It’s amazing how amenable so many people are.  A total stranger, I walk into someone’s working life and simply ask if they would be willing to let me take some photographs.  No one has actually said no yet – though there has been an element of persuasion once or twice.  So I went back for a session with my french polisher, Dave. 

The Working Hands series is not without its technical difficulties.  Firstly, many of the subjects have a workshop little bigger than a cupboard and sometimes there is not much natural light.  They themselves can get in but the space left and the angle to shoot in leaves me more or less standing on my head in an area the size of a wardrobe.  Then there is the nature of the work.  You have a subject’s head and torso in one part of the frame usually bending over a piece of work in the opposite part of the frame with very little in the middle.  All of this requires some imagination on the hoof – but is that not what photography is all about, eh?  And the most difficult and delightful thing is that you usually get into a conversation about whatever their particular skill is.  I find it hard to talk and photograph at the same time, in the first place and in the second what they are saying is usually very interesting so I find myself forgetting the camera and chatting about my subject's skills and processes.

So it was with Dave the french polisher.  I had always thought that a french polisher, well, polished.  But in fact it is more that they are experts in wood finishes.  So they don’t spend all their time huffing back and forth with a large polishing cloth.  They restore finishes, rework surfaces, rejuvenate grains, revive stains and shades and remove blemishes.  They are the cosmetic surgeons of wood.

I found all this out when I put my camera down and chatted to Dave.  Naturally enough every polisher has a cocktail cabinet of secret potions handed down in the family (Dave learned his trade from his father) and Dave showed me around his – though obviously if I were to reveal anything my life would be hanging by a slender thread.  He did tell me that he only uses two basic stains and simply dilutes them with turps to get the exact shade he wants.  I don’t know where that leaves the zillion or so choices that you get in the average diy store.  The picture below shows his mixing bowls.  Professional honesty requires me to reveal that I asked him to remove the baked bean tin as rather spoiling the overall aesthetic effect but in the end verisimilitude prevailed.  The picture cannot though do justice to the sensuousness of the mixing process, the heady aromas, the liquid trickle and slurp. I felt as if I were in an alchemist’s chamber.

The Elixirs of Revival

The Elixirs of Revival

Technically speaking, putting the camera down is probably a bit of a mistake.  You get your eye in and then I personally find that if I break into that process my eye seems to go a bit cold and it takes a moment or two to get it back again.  But you chat and tea is offered and you chat a bit more and for me that is part of the pleasure of the whole process.  For what greater pleasure is there than a good conversation?

I'll put my chosen photograph of Dave up in the Working Hands series shortly.

(Tech tip.  If you have one of those annoying white stains on a polished wooden surface you can remove it by wiping it with white spirit and then applying a match.  Poof!  A wisp of smoke and it is gone.  Obviously, amounts are crucial here otherwise, poof! and  your furniture's on fire.  Hmmm... maybe best left to an expert after all.)

French Polisher's Window (Inside)

French Polisher's Window (Inside)

(All photographs my own)

GETTING INTO TROUBLE

 

There Is Insensitivity With A Camera And There Is Stupidity

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Although I have done it, I am very uneasy about turning a camera on a person who is unaware of my presence.  It may just be a natural disinclination to  voyeurism (based on exquisite taste, of course); but I think it is more likely a base instinct for self preservation – perhaps the result of a difficult photographic lesson I learnt many years ago.

In the late 1970s I lived in Kabul, Afghanistan.   A friend of mine was leaving the country and wanted to spend a day photographing a few memories for himself.   He asked me if I would drive him round and I agreed and took my own camera with me.

The Soviet Army had invaded a few months before but the city itself was pretty peaceful.  We had a fine time in peerless winter Afghan weather, strong sun and blue skies, driving south out of the city towards the Darulaman palace – then still standing.  We took a dusty track eastwards along the city’s perimeter and stopped to take in the view.  I then did a very stupid thing.  As we gazed, I noticed that there was a Soviet gun emplacement over to our left.  I had a little Pentax MX with a reasonably long telephoto lens on it – around 125mm maybe.  Out of idle curiosity I swung it round towards the emplacement.  I couldn’t see much but what I did see sent my heart racing.  Through the lens I saw a sentry turn, look, raise his rifle and take aim at me.

I think I probably froze for a second before dropping the camera away from my eye.  But still he was aiming.  All I could manage then was a sad parody of a John Wayne movie.  I raised my hands as high as I could.  I seemed to have stopped breathing.  The sentry lowered his rifle and came bounding across the snow towards the pair of us with several comrades.  They grabbed the cameras and us and pushed us through thigh high snow to their tents. 

Things then moved from high drama to soap.  The Soviet soldiers clustered round us both and started asking the questions that Soviet citizens always asked of westerners: how much do you earn, how much does your car cost, how much does a house cost and so on.  I did my best to answer in halting Russian in a naked attempt to build bridges.  Apart from the periodic appearance of their unfriendly sergeant to call me a spy and running dog it all went quite well, in fact.  As the afternoon wore on and the sun and the temperature dropped we moved into a large tent.  They placed our cameras gently on some sacking and laid strips of cloth over the lenses for protection.  They rolled me a cigarette which I accepted gratefully, even though I had stopped smoking over a decade before, and offered us compote – a watery drink with berries at the bottom which we sipped as though it were nectar. 

They were tall, impressive looking guys in shapkas and greatcoats some of which had deep red lapels.  Strong beams of sunlight raked through the darkened tent and the shadows slipped into blackness.  Several of the soldiers stood one booted foot forward with hands slipped inside their coats Napoleon-style. It was a timeless moment.  I suddenly thought of those great nineteenth century oil paintings of military campaigns where staff officers are gathered round in the commander’s tent and the artist engineers high contrast lighting in just this way.  It would have made a truly fabulous photograph but my sensitivity to such situations had, understandably I think, just been burned to its core. 

I can’t say that we all became bosom pals but the soldiers seemed to bear no ill-will at all towards us and by the time we parted I felt pretty well-disposed towards them as well.  But part we did.  It was many hours later.  The Army’s problem seemed to be finding someone senior enough to decide what to do with us.  Eventually they decided that turning us over to the Afghan secret police was the best move. 

When I saw where they were taking us, after a hair-raising ride in a jeep through the pot-holed streets of the Afghan capital with a rifle pointed at my head, my heart did another backflip.  The secret police headquarters!  I imagined pliers and bare electrodes.  But it was all benign.  We spent most of the time discussing the year our interrogator had spent in Southsea which he clearly remembered with great fondness.  I think I even claimed to have known his landlady in a further shameless attempt to ingratiate myself.  He said we would have to expose the film in our cameras but we said we hadn’t actually taken any photos and so they turned us out into the freezing Afghan evening and the compound gate clanged firmly shut behind us.

And that, I think, is why ever since I have never been happy squinting through a long lens at someone who, I imagine, is unaware of my presence.  For the rest of my time in Kabul I concentrated on Afghans whose permission I would carefully request before training my camera on them – like the three handsome chaps here.  Who knows what has become of them in the intervening 40 years of dreadful events in that now unhappy country?

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