Tuesday, 29 June 2010

A Discovery?

As I mentioned a while ago, I've been taking a look at some micro 4/3 camera and lens combinations, now that prices on the original models (Olympus E-P1 and Panasonic G1) have crashed. The story so far, should you care:

The G1 is a sexy little beast, covered in some tactile substance that the human hand finds irresistible: it's like holding a rather solid kitten. Mmmm! The articulated screen is a joy to use: why don't all cameras have one of these? I was not entirely convinced by the electronic viewfinder: it's brilliant in good light, but less so in low or very bright light. And, yes, as no doubt you've read elsewhere, the 14-45mm zoom is reassuringly solid. However, it quickly became obvious that the whole package was far from pocket-sized and covered in functional but inconvenient lumps and bumps, and that I'd really be looking at replacing my Canon DSLR if I were to seriously consider keeping it. So, reluctantly, I'll be passing it on.

The E-P1 is another matter. Having rejected the Olympus EVF as seen on an E-PL1, I was sold on the 17mm pancake lens and optical viewfinder combination. It just feels good, as does the whole camera -- it's simply a marvel of design and just-rightness. It's perfect in the way the original cassette-tape Sony Walkman was perfect. And it takes a decent picture, too. I have to say the collapsible 14-42mm lens is a bit wacky and a bit wobbly and longer than I really like when, um, erected, but a good size for a travelling companion.

But ... I think I have made a curious discovery.

When you start using it, you begin to notice that the area covered by the brightlines in the 17mm viewfinder seems to be rather less than the area covered by the rear screen (and captured by the camera). At first, I was puzzled. It was a classic case of not believing the evidence of your own senses. I mean, they must be the same, right? Perhaps it was just parallax? Damn it, this viewfinder is designed for this fixed focal-length lens and no other, isn't it? I was so baffled that I eventually opened the glory hole under the stairs and rummaged around for five minutes to find my tripod (yes, that's how baffling this was).

I set it up. I put the E-P1 on it. I lined up the view on the rear screen with some obvious markers about 10 feet away. I looked through the viewfinder. Nope: the two views were definitely not the same. Definitely a smaller angle of view in the brightlines... About, say, that of a slightly wide "normal" lens.

Hey, just a minute... I fetched the Panasonic 20mm pancake lens I happened to have next door, and attached it to the E-P1. I lined up the view, and looked through the viewfinder. Amazing. The brightlines were, pretty much, an exact match. How about that?

Have you read this anywhere else? That the Olympus 17mm viewfinder is a pretty sloppy match for the Olympus 17mm lens, but a decent match for the Panasonic 20mm lens? I certainly haven't. So, unless I have a freak sample of the viewfinder, I think this is something well worth knowing.

That is, that if you want a fast snapshot/street camera (that's "fast" as in aperture -- the Olympus autofocus is dreadfully slow -- I have yet to try the firmware update) with an accurate optical viewfinder and in-body image stabilisation, the combination to go for is an Olympus E-P1 plus Olympus 17mm viewfinder plus Panasonic f/1.7 20mm lens. Pass it on!

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Me and My Shadow

Near Llandrindod Hall Farm, Powys

In a recent comment on the Brown Clee post, Gavin asked an interesting question. He wondered why I seemed to feel differently about those photographs taken at Brown Clee compared with, say, those that make up other "landscape" series, e.g. the ones I made at Mottisfont Abbey. I began to reply as another comment, but decided it was worth a post in its own right.

So, why do I regard some of my photographs differently to others?

Well, on one level, of course, we all do. An obvious reason is purpose. If, for example, I photograph a plate which I intend to sell on Ebay, my primary purpose is simply to show what the plate looks like. But -- if I have any idea what I'm doing -- I will also have a strong, secondary purpose, which is to make it look as attractive as possible to prospective buyers. And if I were a professional advertising photographer, I'd use all sorts of tricks to sex up that plate, to convince the target demographic that buying this plate is an essential lifestyle or status move. My intention would not so much be to portray the plate, or my feelings about the plate, as to stimulate the desire of an imagined purchaser of the plate.

The same goes for landscape: most landscape photography is pretty instrumental, too. "Look, here's a landscape -- isn't it magnificent? Oh, and look -- here's a flight schedule!". Skilled landscape photographers deploy a similar bag of tricks to the advertising photographer. The work of a successful landscapist like Charlie Waite is all about using viewpoint, time of day, isolation of subject, graduated filters, choice of lens, composition, etc., to produce a highly crafted view, primarily intended to appeal to the viewer's eye. Such work is rarely either very expressive of the person behind the camera, however, or the reality on the ground. It's rather classical in spirit -- pleasing variations within mutually-acceptable guidelines. One thinks of Alexander Pope:
True Wit is Nature to Advantage drest,
What oft was Thought, but ne'er so well Exprest,
Something, whose Truth convinc'd at Sight we find,
That gives us back the Image of our Mind.

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism
It's often work of this sort that attracts people to photography in the first place. You see it everywhere in books and magazines -- lavender fields in Provence, misty dawns in the Pyrenees, autumnal oak groves in the Dordogne, all catching that warm "magic hour" sunlight just so. But, although I respect the skill, that is not the kind of photography I admire or aspire to produce. Not least because so many others do.

St. Audrey's Bay, Somerset

So, what is? I have already mentioned the work of Thomas Joshua Cooper several times. Cooper is the ultimate romantic landscape photographer, a driven man, fulfilling his unique vision in conditions of sometimes melodramatic peril, lugging his antique Agfa view camera into the remotest corners of the Atlantic coast or onto Norwegian glaciers, sticking religiously to a "one lens, one exposure" mantra. You may find his work too dark, too samey, too mysterious, even rather frightening. TJC couldn't care less.

Or perhaps Susan Derges. Obsessed with the camera-less photographic image, she is to be found at midnight when there is a full moon, dunking large sheets of Cibachrome into the tide on Devon beaches or into the wooded streams of Dartmoor, like a priestess of some sort of hi-tech haruspicy. It does sound utterly mad, but what sensational, unique, inimitable, expressive images result! I doubt Susan Derges cares much what other people think of her work or her methods.

Or Jem Southam. In some ways the mirror image of Thomas Joshua Cooper, Jem is the ultimate post-romantic landscape photographer, a driven man, fulfilling his unique vision in conditions of sometimes comic bathos, lugging his view camera and ladder repeatedly into the same familiar corners of the English south coast, sticking religiously to an "overcast light only, absolutely no Sturm and Drang!" mantra. You may find his work too blandly-lit, too samey, too mysterious, even disturbing. Jem is amused by, but indifferent to, his detractors.

But, seeing as this is my blog, what about me? Apart from admiring the work and attitude of certain outstanding contemporary photographers, what differentiates those images that I hoard into series, and those I regard as "one offs"?

The simplest answer is that I like there to be a genuine coherence about my series / sequences, usually one combining unities of time, place, approach and technique. The underlying project has to be there. For example, the images of the River Test at Mottisfont were the result of a two year project, with access granted to the grounds in the closed season, using the same camera and film. Their coherence is not accidental. Whereas those Brown Clee photographs are of a place I've only visited twice, under particularly strained emotional conditions, and using a technique (scanned 120 film) which I have now pretty much abandoned. If there were, say, a few hundred of them there might be some sort of highly condensed sequence to be extracted. But there aren't: you only get 12 images on a 120 roll of film, and I think I shot a couple of rolls on each visit.

Now, it is true that I have a vast hoard of 6x6 and 6x4.5 negatives which remain largely unscanned. Buried in there are plenty of classic landscape "views" with enough edge and interest to warrant pulling together, one day, as a sort of retrospective series, and the Brown Clee images might find a place there. But a lot of them are what I refer to, semi-facetiously, as "holiday snaps"; I went to this place, I saw this view, I took this photograph. For example, I have quite a large body of work from our annual visits over the last 30 years to the Welsh Borders. But it doesn't cohere and, above all, it doesn't penetrate beneath the superficial attractions and quirks of the area.

I'm never convinced by the kind of results I get from brief visits. I'd never make a good photojournalist. That's what I mean when I refer to these images as "holiday snaps". We'll always be mere visitors in Wales, unless and until we decide to retire there, and have to cope with what really happens in that wonderful landscape: the limited shopping facilities, the rural postal service and health service, the absence of mobile phone and broadband coverage, the decline of the hill farming economy, the ageing population, locals' resentment of incoming retirees, etc., etc. Then I may finally have something to say about the place!

And it is important to me that I have something to say, that I am not wasting your time and mine if I ask for your attention. And that "something" has -- for me -- to be more than simply calling attention to or illustrating something as self-evident as, let's say, the beauty or magnificence of a landscape "to Advantage drest". You can do that for yourself or, if not, buy books and postcards. What I am interested in is the expressive, narrative and poetic possibilities that images combined in sequences can generate; I'm just not so interested in the kind of stand-alone imagery that someone might use as their PC wallpaper or buy as a greetings card.

So, yes, although I like those Brown Clee photographs -- I wouldn't have shown them otherwise -- they do not really satisfy me. They lack a proper context, and they need the stimulating company of other photographs; it is not yet clear to me whether I can provide either. And I certainly can't imagine anyone wanting to make them into greetings cards.

Issigeac, Dordogne, France

Monday, 21 June 2010

Empty Chairs

I find there are few things as evocative of people as empty chairs. In Gestalt Therapy, an empty chair is an important presence in the room.

In the West, at least, the world seems to be liberally scattered with these open invitations to take the weight off your feet. Stacked, strewn, ordered in neat rows: they're everywhere. And the older you get, the more gratifying that is.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Bless the Weather

Sometimes, even the most shoe-gazing of photographers can't help but notice the people passing by. The EP-1 with the 17mm lens and optical viewfinder is an excellent instrument for this sort of opportunity. I've never used a Leica (outside of a camera shop), but I can easily see why all the classic street-shooters favour that unmediated rangefinder window on the world.

I've actually de-saturated the colours in that image, as the reality of those dyes in bright sunshine was hallucinatory. I'm beginning to wonder whether all that volcanic dust hasn't done something to the quality of our light, like some gigantic diffusion dome. On sunny days, things have started to look positively mediterranean. Or maybe it's just that my interior weather has begun to lighten.

Saturday, 19 June 2010

A Little Light Geometry

I'm in the early stages of evaluating whether some combination of "micro four thirds" lenses and bodies might be a possible (and possibly ideal) camera system for me -- more soon. If you haven't got a clue what I'm talking about, cover your ears, look away now, and look to your wallet. I don't suppose you need any more ways to spend money.

These "white wall" pictures were taken with an Olympus EP-1 fitted with the 17mm "pancake" lens. It feels good, but -- contrary to what I said in some earlier comments -- I think I'm revising my opinion of the Panasonic G1. As the prices of these early micro four thirds cameras have crashed -- because they are discontinued models and, good grief, at least a couple of years old -- it's a good moment to move in and have a little behind-the-curve consumer fun.

Thursday, 17 June 2010


This review in the current TLS alerted me to what looks like it may be an outstanding example of an "artist's book", Nox by Canadian poet Anne Carson. The book is Carson's reaction to a poem by Catullus, in word and image.

Catullus is not much mentioned these days, and I can't claim any expertise myself, but if you have come across the phrase "Frater ave atque vale" (Brother, hail and farewell) you already know something of what was once a very famous poem, Catullus 101* or more properly CI -- perhaps better known in various translations and allusions to those famous closing words, ave atque vale. These are Catullus' farewell words to his brother, spoken after a long journey to stand by his grave. The poem was once a touchstone to those classically-educated nineteenth century poets.

Setting aside the appropriateness of the poem this week (though, if you're reading this, Phil old friend, this is very much written with you in mind, and -- though I know you're not one for "signs and portents" ... always a good thing in a GP ... perhaps you'll allow me a little pleasure in the coincidence**) I'm very attracted by what Anne Carson seems to have done with the poem, and -- having ordered myself a copy -- I'm now going to alert you to it.

Read the review, take a look at the images on Amazon.com, maybe look at the Wikipedia page on "101", and make up your own mind.

Image from "In Darknesse Let Mee Dwelle" (work in progress)

* No, fool, "Catullus 101" is not a beginner's course in Latin poetry, but the reference number scholars have given to it -- a bit like a Mozart "K" number.

** Phil: One of Anne Carson's books -- and I'm not making this up, honest -- is "
The Beauty of the Husband: a Fictional Essay in 29 Tangos". "Synchronicity spoken here", as we used to say...

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

John Wilson Memorial

I had a very moving and humbling experience today. My old friend, John Wilson, who died recently, was given a (humanist) memorial celebration in the chapel of Balliol College, Oxford. It was quite an occasion.

As we gathered in the chapel to the sound of "Sit Down" by James -- which was moving in itself, but doubly so when we heard John had attended a James concert quite recently in his wheelchair -- it became astonishingly apparent how many people had taken the trouble to attend a memorial at midday on a Tuesday. The chapel was packed with what I would guess was 200 or more people, of whom perhaps only 20 were familiar faces. I knew John had led a full and multi-layered life, but -- as we heard tribute after tribute to the place John had held in the hearts and lives of the speakers -- the true scale of his network of friends and influence became apparent.

The Labour Party, the cyclists and the cycle shop, his cricket club, and most movingly the several generations of people who had lived with John at the farmhouse and whom he had helped and nurtured with his gruff generosity (often, it seemed, in the form of cups of tea). It all made the magnitude of his loss at age 52 more poignant. By the end the sniffling and eye-wiping was universal, and we were played out into the sunshine by the Grateful Dead ("Box of Rain").

Of course, I cannot have been alone in wondering how many people would have attended my own memorial, and was humbled by the calculation. Like Scrooge, I resolved to lead a better, fuller, more people-oriented life. Yeah, right. John's brother Phil had asked that we dress in a "colourful and flamboyant" way, both to mark this as a celebration, and to remember John's idiosyncratic fashion sense. Some interesting colourways were on display. Of course, someone always has to go too far...

The local Oxford papers have carried a couple of pieces on John. Here are links to one in the Oxford Times, and one in This is Oxfordshire. And here is an Oxford Times obituary.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Boundary Elements

Here is a Blurb version of the book of "square" images, the genesis of which I described in the post Aleatory Arrangements. I'm quite pleased with how it's turned out, though as always there is scope for improvement and changes of mind. One of the joys of on-demand self-publishing is having the liberty to scrap or revise editions at will, something no "true" publisher would ever allow.

Obviously, what chance began I have finished. In the process of editing the sequence down to a sensible 120 pages I have made new choices which seemed, to my eye, to work better. But, although some of the rhymes and rhythms have been reworked, the underlying thrust is still chronological from January 2009 to June 2010, with the emphasis on the "liminal" seasons and moods.

If you would like to buy a copy, I do recommend the upgrade to premium paper (matte).

Sunday, 13 June 2010

On Brown Clee

A few years ago we had an autumn half-term break in Shropshire, partly because we needed to be near to my partner's parents, who were in a desperate state of decline. We stayed on the slopes of a hill known as Brown Clee, and I felt a tremendous affinity with the landscape.

I was still shooting a lot of film, then, and ended up with a set of images which I was pleased with, but which had no natural home in any of my other work. They stand alone, as "holiday snaps" so often do (unless, of course, holiday snaps are all the photographs you ever make). Recently I remembered them, and resolved to do something with them.

Scans of 120 negatives are enormous, even done on a flatbed: at 300 dpi, these images measure 26" x 21", roughly equivalent to a 50 megapixel camera. I have to say, for a long time I thought this was the way to go, i.e to use film in medium-format cameras, but to scan it and manipulate and print the result digitally. Laziness, a desire for instant results, and a calculation of how much the weekly "dev and contact" of several 120 films was costing me (between £750 and £1500 p.a.) meant I gave up on this, but I would still recommend it to anyone as an alternative route to quality. I used primarily a Fuji GS-645 and an old folding Agfa Isolette II. These Brown Clee pictures were all made with the Agfa.

Please excuse the deliberately "retro" look and feel... It matches the mood of that week and the location and the autumnal weather. All of the subtlety and separation in the darker tones is lost in these JPEGs, but -- on glossy Epson premium paper -- believe me, they look magnificent.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Hands On Surprise

I surprised myself this afternoon. It's been a long time since I put in any serious time hanging out on a Saturday afternoon in a camera shop just trying stuff out. I used to do this regularly -- I suppose it was a continuation by other means of teenage loitering, trying out guitars I could never afford, or simply flipping LP album covers (an extremely satisfying but harmless activity that has gone from the world). I was on good terms with the staff in the shop where I bought all my cameras and lenses, and most weeks brought in at least two or three colour 120 films for "dev and contact" and bought fresh stock, so there was never any sense that I was wasting their time. As a regular customer, I got a good discount on anything I bought, too.

With the advent of digital, all that seemed to change. Camera shops simply couldn't stock a representative range of the deluge of new models, or cope with the rapid turnover rate. They seemed to be increasingly dependent on whatever deals the company reps would offer. My favourite shop, for example, suddenly and mysteriously stopped carrying Olympus cameras. No-one would ever say why. People gradually stopped bringing in films for processing. Second-hand film cameras and lenses lost their attractions. Darkroom equipment vanished from the shelves. They also couldn't compete with the prices on the Web. With no weekly films to process, I gradually stopped visiting. My favourite shop eventually changed hands, and new staff appeared, with whom I had never spent an idle hour discussing camera movements or agitation techniques, or squinting down the street through exotic lenses neither of us could ever afford.

But this afternoon I decided I actually wanted to handle a Panasonic GF-1 and an Olympus EPL1 in order to compare their electronic viewfinders. I had an itch to scratch. You can't do that on the Web. You can read all the reviews you like, but picking things up can be a revelation -- both positive and negative. So, there I was again in a camera shop, watching an assistant unlock the glass-fronted cabinets to fetch out a selection of hi-tech jewellery to place in front of me on the felt mats lying on the glass-topped counter.

And the surprise was this. I didn't particularly like either of the electronic viewfinders -- way too small, in the case of the Panasonic, and too garishly unreal in the case of the Olympus. Worth knowing. But that cunning assistant had my measure. He then showed me an Olympus EP1 with the 17mm pancake lens and the clip-on optical viewfinder, and I was smitten. It was just right. It felt like a proper camera. Metal, solid, and elegantly purposeful. And the whole kit has been reduced to a very low price indeed, practically half the original price when this little groundbreaker first appeared just 12 months ago -- I suppose the last few are being cleared in advance of the EP2, and the absence of an electronic viewfinder plus the odd negative comment about the quality of that cute little 17mm "pancake" lens has made this combo the least sought after. I think it's a case of grab one while you can: I'm certainly going to.

Thursday, 10 June 2010


I was dithering over whether to buy a copy of Josef Koudelka's Piedmont book, and found myself reading the reviews on Amazon UK. I was very amused by this (one star) review, which I swear I haven't altered in any respect:

Having a love of Italy, and photography, and knowing little of Koudelka's work, the description of the book (and generously reduced price) encouraged me to take a blind plunge, and buy this book. What a mistake that was. The images have nothing of the quality, or style that photographers such as Edwin Smith, Horst, List, De Biasi, Erwitt, and countless others lend to the country. Sadly the photographs are reproduced in an irredeemably deep and gloomy low key, there are no highlights, or sparkle in any of the images. Further the gushing description describes the images as being "panoramic". They are nothing of the sort. A panoramic photograph conventionally encompasses an extremely wide angle of view (in excess of 100 degrees). Most of these do not. Instead they are standard photographs cropped to a letter box shape. This only serves to exclude much of the frame which would otherwise give some meaning too, or add a compositional element to the image. A handful of images are totally appropriate to this crop, but only a handful, and they are by far the better ones. At least 50% of the pages are blank, and printed a uniform black which exacerbates the gloomy appearance still further.

Sadly, though understandably, Amazon won't accept a properly ordered title as a return, otherwise this would have gone straight back. As for being beautifully bound, well, if square edged, thick, raw, cardboard, with gaffer tape on the spine, roughly cut paper and packing case graphics are `beautiful', then I happily admit to having too much taste and discernment for my own good.
Well, that's definitely helped me make up my mind -- two copies, I think.

I should point out that copies of Koudelka's Reconnaissance Wales (also bound in "raw cardboard, with gaffer tape on the spine") currently fetch £700. But photography is a broad church, and everyone is entitled to an opinion. And, after all, it's firmly-held opinions like those of this reviewer that help make books unbought, thus scarce and, ten years later, very sought after...

(Oh, and he's wrong about the Amazon returns policy, too).

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Aleatory Arrangements

I've written before about the attractions of chance, and the way an "accidental" arrangement is so hard to improve on. I always return to this quotation from the photographer Frederick Sommer:
"I have five pebbles, not too different in size and weight, yet a randomness about them. If I drop them on the carpet they will scatter. Now we could run an experiment and we would find that we cannot put these pebbles in shapes that would be as elegant and as nicely related and with as great a variety as every time they fall. It is better than anything we could do. I have great respect for the way I find things. Every time something falls I look. I cannot believe the relationships. The intricacy."
It just seems to be the case that "found" arrangements have more going for them than "constructed" arrangements -- it's why a lot of us are photographers, after all, rather than painters or sculptors. Our eyes seems to have an innate hunger for construing relationships of weight, colour, line, shade and positioning out of the raw materials of reality, an interpretive joy that is rarely matched by the pleasures of construction.

As well as working away at a substantial sequence of photographs, I thought it might be fun to put together something quicker, less laborious, less constructed. The idea of compiling all the "spare" square images I've made since starting this blog suggested itself. What would happen if I relied on judgements made at the time, and simply brought them all together?

I arrange my RAW files by camera, then month/year, with a further "converted" sub-directory for images that have been worked on (e.g. Canon450\Jun10\Converted). I don't know why, but I prefer to have them sorted first by month rather than year. When I start a new book project, like this one, I create a new directory, copy relevant files into it, then create a subdirectory "Select", and beneath it one called "Bookjpgs".

So, using Breezebrowser, I went through all the directories since late 2008, copying any square images into a new "Squares" directory. I looked through these, and copied the good stuff into "Select". I then set up a bulk edit in Photoshop Elements to resize them all to 15 cm at 300 dpi, and resave them as JPEGs at highest quality to the "Bookjpgs" directory. I sorted the resulting Bookjpgs directory by "date originally created". There were over 170 images in there.

I then set up a new book in Blurb's BookSmart software. I chose the small 7" square size, and for the sake of simplicity chose the same photo page format throughout. I tried autoflowing the images into the book, ordered by date, but discovered that Booksmart only sees the latest date, not the original date -- no use. So, having loaded the Squares\Select\Bookjpgs directory into BookSmart, I dragged them in one at a time on facing pages, using Breezebrowser's sorted display as a guide. Tedious, but I have an affinity with such work; I think I believe it's good for me.

What was immediately obvious was how satisfying so many of the random pairings were. Weirdly so. A chronological sequence is -- visually -- as subject to chance as a truly random order. Now, I work very hard at sequencing photographs. Judging what goes with what, and in what order, and why, is a real skill, which gets honed over time. But -- as with Sommer's random pebbles -- it would have been hard to improve on very many of these.

With a bit of a cull, the book came down to 160 pages. I decided to get it down to a ruthless 120 pages, but always retaining the chronological order. In my experience, the pain of editing always pays off. Sometimes, it's the very pictures that stimulated the idea of the sequence in the first place that need to go. It's rather like taking down the scaffolding.

This is still a work in progress, but here are a few of those unplanned pairings.

Obviously, there is an inherent coherence in these images, in that they are all made by the same person, in the same way, and during a period of eighteen months when my preoccupations would have been similar. But it does make you realise that all that work put into sequencing is only worthwhile when there is a conscious underlying program to develop, like the theme of a piece of music, or the plot of a story.

Otherwise, your mind seems perfectly happy to construct relationships with whatever comes to hand. It's an interesting question whether these relationships are in any way different or less meaningful -- to the viewer -- than the ones so carefully constructed and offered up by an "artist". Somehow I doubt it: that, as I say, is one good reason why we like photography in the first place.

Saturday, 5 June 2010

Mappa Mundi

Of Darkrooms

I wasn't going to own up to this, but why not? I was reading Mike Johnston's post "Life is too short for Alexander Pope" on TOP yesterday, and felt like having a little fun, so wrote the following bit of verse while the rice was cooking, and left it as a comment under the name "Alexander Pope".

Of darkrooms, dev and stop and fix, I'll sing!
A little burning is a dangerous thing,
Black skies as never were beneath the sun!
And dodging, too, tho' it be carefully done,
Creates those ghostly halo'd heads that shine
Like beacons in the murky fog of grain,
And dust! Fell dust! Tho' negatives be stored
And puff'd, the darkroom worker's quickly bored
With spotting spotty spots, and longs
For cloning; No, Johnston! Put down thy tongs,
The dreadful night of hypo is now past,
And DIGITAL's bright day has dawned, at last!

Mike was suitably amused, I'm happy to report. I wonder if it's too late to consider a career as an Alexander Pope tribute act?

Thursday, 3 June 2010

John Wilson

I mentioned a while ago that an old friend was struggling with a brain tumour -- an optimistic portrayal of what was in reality a much bleaker situation. Today, after a rapid decline which by all accounts he bore with a relentless, unreasonable and inappropriate cheerfulness, John Wilson died.

You almost certainly never knew John, never bought anything from his bike shop in Walton Street in Oxford, or played cricket against Eynsham Cricket Club, where he was Player of the Year as recently as 2007 . But, if you were lucky, you too will once have had friends who now inhabit your personal Dream Time; no matter how much time passes or how infrequently you meet, such people have shaped you in ways that make them your true family. The loss of one of these mythical beings is an enormous sadness.

I last met John last year, when I took my son up to Oxford to the university open days. While he was off being given the scholastic sales pitch, John and I had our sandwiches in the quadrangle of Balliol College, where we had been undergraduates together. We amused ourselves watching college life carrying on, as if 30 years had not passed. More than ever, he seemed like a force of nature in shorts and fingerless cycling gloves; impossible to imagine that within a year he would be laid so low.

These lines are from what is allegedly the only good poem ever written about cricket, a game I never understood but which John loved. Its sentimentality (and the fact that its author was an opium addict who couldn't get it together actually to attend the famous Lancashire v. Middlesex match he describes) would have made him roar with laughter.

For the field is full of shades as I near a shadowy coast,
And a ghostly batsman plays to the bowling of a ghost,
And I look through my tears on a soundless-clapping host
As the run-stealers flicker to and fro,
To and fro:
O my Hornby and my Barlow long ago!

At Lord's, Francis Thompson (1859-1907)

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Game Changer

I'm currently working on a substantial sequence of photographs and a book, to be called In Darkness Let Me Dwell, which is the name of a song by John Dowland (1563-1626). Dowland was a lute player and composer, and an exemplar of the Elizabethan cult of melancholy. He wrote a piece with the title "Semper Dowland, semper dolans" (ever Dowland, ever doleful), which was clearly a calculated and self-conscious branding strategy. Other titles ("Flow My Tears", "Lachrimae, or Seaven Teares", etc.) underline the themes of tears, tombs, sweet sadness and fetching black clothes. The Goth sensibility is nothing new.

Despite its melancholy turn, his music is often melodically and dynamically interesting, and has attracted a number of subsequent composers and musicians, especially those looking for a strong, English tradition of composition. I particularly like the recording of "In Darkness Let Me Dwell" by countertenor Andreas Scholl, and there is an interesting Dowland interpretive project on ECM Records involving tenor John Potter of the Hilliard Ensemble and saxophonist John Surman. We won't mention the Dowland recordings of Sting or Elvis Costello.

In recent times I've been having a lot to do with that early 17th century period, one way or another, and all the time I've been aware of a constant tickle of memory at the back of my mind. Something wanted to be remembered. But what? If I picked up my Clarendon Press edition of Shakespeare's sonnets (a lovely book, published in 1985) the itch became particularly strong. As it did if I thought of my sixth-form days studying English or, oddly, a concert in 1972 at Southwark Cathedral where the Third Ear Band performed their music for Polanski's film of Macbeth. Tantalizing.

This week the memory finally emerged. Yesterday I had a strong urge to read John Donne, and knew it had to be in the Herbert Grierson anthology we had used at school. That is, "Metaphysical Lyrics & Poems of the Seventeenth Century: Donne to Butler", published by the Clarendon Press in 1921, and much reprinted since. Working in a university library, of course, this was an easy urge to satisfy.

As soon as I picked it up, I knew I had re-connected with something. Everything about this book is just right, in ways that are clear to me now, but were only obscurely felt by my teenage self in 1971/2. The original spellings of the poems are retained, for a start, which lends an incantatory, antiquarian charm ("Goe, and catche a falling starre..."). The book is printed on laid paper, crisp as banknotes, and impressed with proper letterpress type, in places as proud of the page as braille. It is sweetly sized -- a "crown octavo" (5" x 7.5") -- and discreetly and durably bound in smooth, dark blue buckram with a gold-blocked spine. But, above all, the poems are laid out on the page in an act of pure typography that approaches a "type facsimile", i.e. they are printed with modern type but using some of the typographic conventions of the 17th century.

Look at those page numbers, so large and so airily enclosed in parentheses! And those bold rules that divide off each poem, like an account book. Never mind the contents, the mere appearance of this little book is an open invitation to mental time travel.

It has historical significance, too: before it appeared in 1921 practically no-one read Donne. Afterwards, everyone did. In terms of literary taste, it was a real game-changer. It's the sort of thing that used to populate school English department cupboards in the days when "textbooks" were intended to last for several generations, and to introduce neophytes to the look and feel of scholarship.

I'm off to the Web straight away to buy myself the best condition example of this little classic I can find.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Snails in Outer Space

"Originality" is a much prized but highly-questionable property (or, if you prefer, it is a highly-contested category). In art, the relationship between "originality" and "quality" is especially difficult in times like these, when the former trumps the latter in the really high-stakes games of aesthetic judgement. Indeed, Originality may even be said to have successfully launched a hostile takeover bid for Quality, with the confusing result that the two are now trading under the same name; let's call it Novelty.

The cult of Novelty means that "value" attaches more easily to new things than to good things, not least because no-one can agree which the good things are. It's a hell of a lot easier to agree which are the novelties, and slap a price ticket on them. I'm sure you can think of your own examples.

The awkward twin of Originality is, of course, Imitation, a.k.a. Influence, Admiration, Appropriation, Plagiarism, and Downright Copyright Theft. I think it was Victor Lewis-Smith who declared that "Imitation is the sincerest form of being an unoriginal thieving bastard". Few things make the art world more unhappy (and its lawyers more jubilant) than to accuse a well-regarded artist of "unacknowledged appropriation" -- it's regarded as the height of bad manners. It's all very well for Picasso to say that "good artists borrow, great artists steal" but, as someone else said, "show me a hit tune and I'll show you a copyright infringement lawsuit". Hey, ask Richard Prince or Shepard Fairey...

I only mention this because I came across some work on the web that, in another universe, might have me speed-dialling my lawyer (needless to say I neither have a lawyer nor any speed-dial settings on my phone). A long time ago, when the Recording Angel's camera still used film, I started experimenting with circular imagery. I would scan film, and play about with masks, layers and selections in Photoshop to produce imagery that resembled (OK, ripped off) the "look and feel" of the work done by Emmet Gowin in the 1960s, when he put a lens for a 5" x 4" camera onto the lensboard of an 8" x 10" camera, capturing the whole image circle on the negative, edge distortion and all. I would produce this sort of thing:

Very Emmet Gowin, wouldn't you say? Those who know my Mysterious Barricades series will see the family resemblance. Anyway, as I proceeded in the direction of Originality from Influence, m'Lud, I began to make a series of images I conceived of as "planets": round sections of natural patterns floating in black space. Like these:

I especially like the polar cap on the second one, which you'll notice is actually a photograph of those wiggly trails that snails rasp away as they snack on algae. But in the end I thought they were a bit gimmicky and just simple-minded novelties, so after showing a few at a local gallery in a group exhibition in 2004 I just used the odd one here and there to liven up a sequence. Again, you may recognize them from my White Crow Telescope book.

But then last week I stumbled over this website. I was astonished. I am pretty sure I have never heard of Elaine Duigenan, though she's clearly working up a bit of a career for herself, and I'm even more certain she's never heard of me, or visited the ArtSway Gallery. The resemblance is more than a little striking. But, all paranoia aside, it has to be a clear case of parallel evolution, or a convergence on what, in retrospect, is an obvious idea. Though I do wonder what sort of meal m'learned friends might have made of it?

She's welcome to them. I still think it's a gimmicky and simple-minded idea. And, frankly, flying one of your "planet" pictures into space on the Space Shuttle Atlantis and having it photographed by an astronaut, as Elaine Duigenan has done, is beyond gimmicky, though it does show good use of contacts at a level most of us cannot even aspire to and, above all, an eye for that all important Novelty factor.

Elaine asserts that "The round images encourage the viewer to consider Earth and the implications of our existence." Well, maybe yes, maybe no. I get the impression that originality of thought may not be her strong suit, though some of her other sequences, for example "Bottle", are visually very striking and strong.* Just don't ever tell me how much her pictures sell for at the aptly-named Kerching Klompching Gallery in New York.

*Though whether the Keith Arnatt of "Canned Sunsets" might have a view on the originality of their striking-ness is another question.