Saturday, 31 December 2011

Resolution in the Head

Look out, here it comes again, that strange moment when one year tips over into another. I like the fact that, unlike some calendrical celebrations I could mention, this is not an entirely arbitrarily chosen date, but one tied intimately to life on planet Earth. A new cycle really does start round about this time, if you accept that a poetic truth (an endless cycle of decline, death, rebirth, and flourishing) can give meaningful shape to an astronomical truth (the movement of the Earth round the Sun, and the Moon round the Earth). How could you not? Well, by being Chinese, I suppose.

I'm not so keen on New Year's Eve, viewed as an annual excuse for a noisy, vomit-spattered booze-up. Drink really has become a problem in this country in the last decade (not a sentence I'd ever thought I'd watch myself write). I keep well out of harm's way, these days, but that's just my age showing. I do like hearing all the ships' foghorns go off at midnight in Southampton Water, though, accompanied by volleys of fireworks and, last year for the first time here, flying Chinese lanterns. I also like New Year's Resolutions. They map nicely onto that spirit of "fail again, fail better" (© S. Beckett) that is the only sane attitude towards the "two steps forward, one point nine nine steps back" experience most of us have in our lives.

So, how do I intend to fail better in 2012?

Well, for a start, I keep meaning to update my website, but keep putting it off. My problem is that I like to write my own HTML code but -- if the site is to be an adequate platform for the work I intend to display on it -- that means getting fully up to speed with all the Javascript, CSS, Flash, and whatever else has come along in recent years to improve the appearance and user experience of websites. That prospect just makes me feel tired, though, not excited as it once would have -- age, again, I suppose.

But all I have on the Web currently is this blog and my Blurb bookstore. The blog is great for showing bits of new work as they happen, but terrible for showing coherent bodies of work. The bookstore is great for showing work that has made its way into printed form, but not for sets and sequences that haven't. As showing coherent bodies of work is what I want to do, this is not ideal. Even if I did get my website back up, keeping it updated would be a real pain.

The answer is obvious, of course. There is a reason why image-sharing sites like Flickr and Tumblr are so popular: they make a complex and tiresome job easy. So, Resolution Number One is to set up a Flickr account, and start filling it with pictures.

Resolution Number Two is to shift the boundaries of my photographic comfort zone, in two ways. I love photographs of people, and I take a fair few of friends and family, but I've never got into that state of mind which regards "people" as the ultimate, true and most challenging subject. I may change that, this year, if only as a way of shaking up my "practice" (sorry, I must stop talking to artists). I'm not a huge fan of so-called "street" photography, where the consent of the subject is taken for granted, and their dignity regarded as disposable, but some sort of portrait project may be on the cards. The category "Angels" keeps popping into my mind (though I'm thinking more Rilke than Robbie Williams).

I also intend to shift those boundaries in a more literal way: my characteristic approach in recent years has been to get in close and fill the frame. Nothing wrong with that -- it's a good way to get strong photographs, has served me well, and I'd recommend it to anyone. In the words of Robert Capa, "If your photographs are not good enough, you're not close enough". But I'm increasingly aware of the missing context, and I have a desire to deliberately include those extraneous elements that I have previously rigorously excluded. This means stepping back and letting the lens and the camera sensor do the work. Whether my kit is up to this -- it's the traditional strength of large-format view cameras -- we'll have to see.

I have other resolutions, too, but most of those are of the tedious "housekeeping" variety, both literal and metaphorical.

But here's a rather random thing which I have just discovered. Do you dislike that mannered, over-decorated, arpeggiated vocal style that is so inescapable now? It was cool when Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin did it, but now it has just become really annoying; almost as annoying, universal and pointless as the words "Belgian chocolate". Well, it has a name: melisma. Sounds like a disease, doesn't it? If I were in a position to do so, I'd launch a campaign to "Stamp Out Melisma in 2012!" But first I'd have to go round explaining what "melisma" means, which sounds like the definition of a lost cause.

Happy New Year to you all. Let's hope for better things and less Interesting Times in 2012.

Friday, 30 December 2011

It's a Family Affair

"A son's your son 'til he takes a wife, but a daughter's your daughter for the rest of your life". My mother recited this saying often enough in my hearing for me to get the message, loud and clear: it's OK to cut your moorings and join another family circle (if you're a boy). Just send us a postcard.

That's pretty much how it's worked out, too. You know when you're a bit of a stranger in your own family when you discover, at your mother's funeral, that you have an extra cousin you had either forgotten or never known about. Well, hello, there! The simple fact is they're not really my tribe any more.

By contrast, I have been assimilated into my partner's tribe. She has two sisters (both of whom, curiously, have also paired up with guys called Mike --I sometimes wonder whether there's some obscure family joke being perpetrated here) and we generally meet up en famille around Christmas time for a ritual exchange of presents. It used to be at the picturesque cottage where two of their aunts lived, but now they've both died we've started meeting up in an olde tea shoppe, dominating the place with our table for twelve and loud voices.

On the way over, I realised I'd forgotten to bring a camera. Then I remembered I had my loaner iPhone in my coat pocket, so decided to give it a try. I must admit, I felt a bit of a fool, fumbling with a fancy phone in an unfamiliar mode, though it turned out half the table were iPhone aficionados. "Is Siri male or female?" they kept asking, to my profound confusion, not least because we'd only just pulled some crackers and read out the jokes (best one: "Q: What does an auctioneer need to know? A: Lots!").

Looking at the results, I must say I wonder at the standards of those people who say "My iPhone 4s is now my main take-everywhere camera!" I mean, they're OK for a phone, but I'd be seriously considering getting another camera.

Is this thing on? Ah, wrong camera...

Silly old fool, he's half deaf as well, you know...

Still, I will try it again before I have to give it back to the quartermaster's stores. Preferably when I haven't got a raucous table of merrymakers trying to put me off my game...

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

Another One Gone

I was sad to read the obituary this week, in the Guardian's "Other Lives" section, of Gerald Anstock, the headmaster of my primary school. I have mentioned Mr. Anstock and his remarkable school in this blog several times (for example, in what is -- by a mile -- my most visited post, due to a link to it from a popular website dealing with corporal punishment).

On second thoughts, "sad" is a rather conventional emotion, and rings hollow. Yes, it's always sad when someone we knew and who had a profound influence on our lives dies. But Gerry Anstock was 94, and no doubt had been having his share of the infirmities of old age. "A good innings", as they say, as another old cricketer leaves the crease. No, I think what I truly felt was, first, surprise (I had assumed he had returned to the eternal pavilion some years ago) and, second, relief.

Why relief, of all things? Because, if I am utterly honest, it is a relief that there is now one less person in the world who might reproach me for not making something more of my life. In fact, there are now probably none such. All gone, the ones who once said to me, "You could do well and go far, lad, if you give it your best shot!", and meant it. Sorry, guys, this is as far as I got. It might look a long way from where I started, but from here all I can see is how much further there was to go, and how far I might have gone.

This is a total projection, of course. It is not they who feel the disappointment, but me. In truth, I would be surprised if many of them had remembered me at all; sadly, even my mother didn't know who I was towards the very end of her life. Teachers do have remarkable memories, it's true. As kids, we take it for granted that all 30 members of our class are known to our teacher by name and probably reputation from Day One. And they usually are. This is quite a good trick -- do they teach mnemonic methods in teacher training? However, after a career of, say, 35 years, a degree of amnesia is probably inevitable and even necessary. 1962-65 was a long time ago, especially for someone over 80.

This is only part of a picture of the whole school:
A free scan of the whole thing to anyone who
can reasonably claim to be in it

Of course, everyone else's memories tend to be, from our own point-of-view, and where they concern us, brutally and insultingly partial and incomplete. I remember when an old acquaintance from our college days bumped into the Prof at a conference a few years ago. This woman had, I am certain, known both of us equally well back in 1974. The inevitable catching up and filling in took place, and the Prof shared the information that she and I were still together. "Mike who?", said this other prof, "No, don't remember him, I'm afraid." Sigh. Ah, well, I did my best to be unforgettable, but... We presume so much on the total recall of others, but this is as unfair as my presumption that you, dear readers, have all read all 500+ posts in this blog.

But we remember what we remember, and sometimes we do remember the same things. I think anyone who went to Peartree Junior School in Stevenage in Gerry Anstock's time will certainly never forget two things: the animals, and the music. I have mentioned the animals before (how many state primary schools have peafowl wandering freely about the premises, or bantam chickens scratching in the playground, I wonder?) so this time I'll mention the music.

Music -- recorded classical, orchestral music -- played a big part in the life of the school. Every morning, we were played in and out of morning assembly to a piece of music played on the school gramophone. The school was divided into houses, and you knew when it was a special "house day", because that morning's music would be the house theme: Beethoven's 5th Symphony for Churchill, Grieg's In The Hall of the Mountain King for Hillary, Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D minor for Schweitzer, and the RAF March Past for Bader. On ordinary days, a selection of classical "lollipops" suitable for children would be rotated: things like Rossini's Thieving Magpie overture, or Holst's Planets Suite. It was -- and was obviously intended to be -- an education in itself for children from our sort of background. Ditto the animals, of course. Backed up with the very real threat of the cane for those who didn't see things Gerry Anstock's way.

For some, there was also the sport. Anstock's Peartree took competitive team sports very seriously indeed. We played to win, sometimes to a degree that could, perhaps, turn a little ugly. The school was, I am told, somewhat feared on the football fields and netball courts of other schools. I was quite good at cricket in those days, and opened the batting and fielded in that suicidal position known as Silly Mid On. Who knows, perhaps somewhere the carefully-compiled score-books for those long-ago seasons still exist.

At one match, fielding on a sunny afternoon in 1965, the batsman clipped a ball into a short low arc that was destined to pass by my left side. Acting entirely from instinct, I dived full length and caught the ball cleanly in my left hand, just before it reached the ground. The field and the spectators erupted; Gerry Anstock's parade-ground bellow of praise carried the length of the field. For the first and last time in my life, I knew what it was to be a true sporting hero; it was a sort of ecstasy. Later that year, our team played a parents' XI, which included my father, with G.H. Anstock keeping wicket. "Watch out for that boy of yours, Doug," said Gerry, "He'll catch you if anyone can!" I will probably remember the pride and pleasure of that summer for the rest of my life.

So, yes, maybe "sad" is the right word after all. If only because they don't make them like that any more. The heads of my own children's schools were bland, harrassed, managerial types, obsessed with grades and tables, and hidden from the children behind secretaries and mountains of paperwork. Gerry would probably have seen off any OFSTED inspectors with a few choice words and a stick. The inevitable disciplinary investigation, the health and safety audit (did you say chickens?), and the suspension on full pay pending an enquiry into unorthodox teaching methods would, sooner or later, have followed. It worked for me, though, peacocks, ferrets, and all. Thanks for that, Mr. Anstock, sir.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Christmas Debrief

Did everyone survive their Yuletide stresses and excesses? I hope so: I know some readers of this blog will have been having a more difficult time at Christmas this year than most of us. My best wishes to you -- you know who you are.

I had a very satisfactory spread of loot this year: a book*, a bottle, a video, a pair of trousers, and a new wallet. Oh, and one of those fantasy Oxfam goats. I bought the Prof one of those new, cheaper Kindles,** and setting it up this afternoon reminded me of one the funnier things I saw this year: a sketch on YouTube from the Norwegian show "Øystein og jeg" from 2001 (written by Knut Nærum), generally referred to as Mediaeval Help Desk. It is particularly funny if you have ever tried to help extremely intelligent people -- who really don't enjoy being made to feel stupid -- cope with unfamiliar IT. Both actors play their roles to perfection.

Talking of Help Desks, the IT department at my university have declared a total IT shut-down from 3-6 January, due to an urgent need to replace faulty electrical circuits in their main machine room. As I would have pretty much nothing to do on those four days, I'm taking them as leave, which -- added to the main closure from Christmas to New Year -- means I'm getting an unprecedented two week break this year.

This idea of closing for the week between the two main mass binges seems to be becoming quite normal for large institutions, and probably needs to be questioned (in a very quiet voice, though) -- I know it drives our overseas students nuts, not to be able to access basic facilities like libraries or catering during that time. I suspect it is seen as simply (yet more) evidence of the decline of our godless, hedonistic civilisation into decadence.

If this is decadence, then bring it on, is what I say. Know what? I think I'm in the mood for another mince pie!

* The book was Richard Misrach's "Destroy This Memory". I was grateful, of course, but I've decided that one of my New Year's Resolutions is going to be: No more photobooks which are too big for a normal bookshelf i.e. taller than 30cm or deeper than 32cm. In fact, I may start buying exclusively "small" ones i.e. smaller than A4.

** Myself, I'm lusting after the Kindle Fire, rumoured to be due for release in the UK in January.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Sniffing Glue at Christmas

In the comments to the previous post I wrote: "There's a film (can't remember which) where someone says that Christmas, for them, always smells of oranges. For me, it always smells of Airfix glue... I always imagine thousands of small boys, high as kites on solvents, bent over plastic model kits on Boxing Day."

That set me off down a very pleasant seasonal chain of associations, and I spent a couple of idle hours googling in the World Wide Curiosity Shop -- surprisingly successfully -- for items from my own personal remote past. It's shocking, really, how much easier it is to retrieve trivia like toys from oblivion than it it is to find, say, the actual friends you used to play with. Anyway, think of this as an Idiotic Hat Christmas Special, reeking of butanone.

I'm pretty sure my very first "plastic assembly kit" was a Frog brand WW2 propeller-driven American fighter aircraft, the Republic Thunderbolt, which someone must have bought me for Christmas around 1960. Going on six years old, I was clearly too young to build it unaided. It was the sort of unthinking present for a minor relative that is snatched off a peg in Woolworth's at the last minute (well, we've all been there). Nevertheless, it happened to spark a lasting enthusiasm.

My father, being a practical man with a love of engineering, was only too ready to help. He was still young enough to feel the attraction of toys, and he liked the novelty and precision of combining the tiny plastic pieces into "assemblies", in a way which mimicked real-world engineering. I adored my father, and we spent many happy hours hunched over the dining room table together, sticking Part A to Part B. I think those times, with him patiently explaining the differences between jet and prop-driven aircraft, or the significance of the wooden construction of the De Havilland Mosquito, were probably the closest moments we ever spent together. There was also the added thrill of learning that the tiny 1:72 representation in his hands was the self-same Stuka dive-bomber or Messerschmitt ME-109 that had attacked him repeatedly and in deadly earnest 20 years previously. I have no idea how he really felt about this, but he didn't seem to take it personally.*

Above all, there was the shared satisfaction of getting it right. My Dad was a bit of stickler for doing things properly, and model-making was an ideal opportunity to induct me into the ways of bloke-ish perfectionism. To blow gently on a propeller and see it spin freely, or to get the undercarriage to set at just the right springy angle, or even simply to attach a cockpit canopy of clear plastic without smearing it with tiny gluey fingerprints was, I came to see, a source of deep and lasting satisfaction. After a couple of years, I was ready to go solo.

But we kept up our Christmas ritual for many more years. One of my most-anticipated presents would always be a special model kit, which we would make together over the long holiday afternoons. I can still remember most of them: the Red Knight of Vienna, a Bald Eagle with spread wings atop a mountain peak, a Mammoth Skeleton (crikey, that one was fiddly!), the Revell HMS Beagle, the Renwal Ontos tank, a pair of duelling pistols, and, our final outing together in 1968, the Revell 1:32 "Werner Voss" Fokker DR1 Triplane. After that, girls and records were all I wanted for Christmas.

It's only in retrospect that I realise the intensity of my engagement with this hobby; not so much with the objects themselves, but with the processes and peripherals. I came to love the analytical flair and representational clarity of a good sheet of instructions, for example, and still do. No words needed.** Is there anything more insightful, more brilliant in its just-right simplicity, than a carefully-drawn "exploded" view? If nothing else, it was all a good preparation for IKEA self-assembly furniture in adult life, I suppose. But, actually, I think you learn a lot about analysing a problem from such things: how a large problem can be broken down into its constituent parts, and how these parts relate to each other, and in what order various processes must be completed. This is not trivial stuff.

There is also poetry and art in model-making. There is the rich vocabulary of engineering in miniature: fuselage, nacelle, chassis, strut, cockpit, canopy, sprue, sprocket, propeller and aileron. Wonderful, evocative, precisely-meaningful words. Done properly, you also learn, literally and metaphorically, what is "fitting" and what is not. You learn the functional poetry of form, you acquire the ability to interpret and honour the intentions behind a design, and -- in time -- you learn the pleasure of going beyond those intentions to create something new, even if it is merely to paint your Spitfire pink.

You also come to appreciate the artistry of the original model maker, too, as well as the finer points of manufacture. The better modellers would pay close attention to matters of texture, surface, volume and moulding, and the better manufacturers could manage to convey this in pieces of mass-produced injection-moulded plastic. As it happens, my own favourite thing was often the little sheet of transfers (decals) that came with most kits, to enable insignia and other markings to be added to the model. These were often masterpieces of design, and items of pop art in their own right (before cutting them up!); variations in branding (nationality, arm of service etc.) might have to be accommodated on the same sheet, resulting in complex, interlaced layouts with exciting bold patterns of echoes and symmetries.

But for sheer, open-mouthed, pre-teen, gawping pleasure, there is little to beat the magnificence of model "box art", depicting the aircraft or vehicle in question imagined in context -- guns blazing, soaring through clouds, or crashing through mountainous waves, with every strut and rivet correctly placed. As with movie posters, an evocative painting can seem so much more enticing than a bland photograph of the box contents. All model-making requires a significant investment of imagination to make the thing come alive, and box art is the nudge that most of us need. I understand that artists like Roy Cross, Jo Kotula, Jack Leynwood, Brian Knight, and many others are much admired and collected. Google their names and you'll see why.

Then, of course, there's the glue... Or rather, "polystyrene cement", for as any fule kno plastic kits are welded together by melting the plastic in a solvent, rather than "stuck". Hence that never-forgotten sensation of sliding a lug into an aperture that had seemed too snug before applying the lubricating solvent [That's enough of that! Santa's elves are getting the giggles. Ed.]. Hence also those disfiguring fingerprints gluey young fingers can leave etched into a smooth wing or ship's sail. I have no idea idea how far the absorbed happiness of those long-ago Christmas holiday afternoons was due to being "glue happy". Not too far, I think, as in more recent years I rediscovered that very same sensation of shared, absorbed concentration, when helping my son with his own favourite Christmas treat -- an enormous Lego set, preferably Star Wars related, with a fiendishly baroque complexity of construction. Lego, of course, is famously glue-free.

In the end, happy is happy. I hope that you find some spells of true happiness, however achieved, over the Christmas holiday and throughout the New Year.

* Buying Japanese goods was a different matter. Most Burma veterans felt similarly. Dad would have loved to have driven an Audi, if he could have afforded it, but you couldn't have given him a Honda, free.

** Just as well: in my "girls and records" years, I had a good friend who was still building models, and he would buy some of the classy Japanese imports that were coming onto the market in the late 1960s. We would have hysterics trying to understand the Japlish instructions concerning "supu-rocket wheels" (sprocket wheels) and the like. Great kits, though (but I didn't tell Dad about them).

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Sunday Squared

I'm afraid I've been a bit uncommunicative since last week -- I've been in bed for several days with the traditional pre-Christmas virus, and still feel pretty dreadful. Odd, how this happens. It's probably the body's way of saying, "Nooo!!" ...

Like everyone over eight, I have mixed feelings about this time of year. I sometimes wonder if the only reason WW1 went on so long was that initial rash promise that it would all be over by Christmas. "Can't we make it, over by -- say -- next summer, sarge? I ain't that keen on getting back fer Chrissmas, truth be told... Our Sissie's s'posed to be comin' over this year, an' 'er kids drive me round the bend... Pass me that there rum." Only a tiny percentage of the army was ever in the trenches; everyone else was getting the regular meals, semi-skilled work, good company and family-free life that is the secret dream of most young men. Not least in 1914, when a large proportion of the British male population was found to be undersized, undernourished, and living in over-crowded domestic conditions.

In bed, feverish and half-awake, I found myself visited by the ghosts of Christmas Past. Nothing dramatic or Dickensian: I remembered shapes and textures that have now vanished: red and green crepe paper, concertina-folded paper chains, a brace of pheasants hanging unplucked in the larder, blancmange, and my mother's rock-hard cake icing, white, smooth and inviolable as dental plaster. I remembered seeing red-faced aunts and uncles playing slightly risqué competitive party games in a community hall, involving standing in lines to pass keys on a string up, down and through clothing (causing much squealing and showing of knickers), or to manoeuvre a balloon from person to person without the use of hands, with us kids goggle-eyed and forgotten on the sidelines with our orangeade and crisps. I remembered a swooning sense of bliss, high on a sugar rush and up several hours past my usual bedtime, lying on the carpet in a darkened living room under the Christmas tree, looking up through the branches at the blinking coloured lights, like a happy drunk in a gutter.

I also remembered some truly appalling days earning Christmas cash, one year stretching the necks and plucking the feathers of turkeys in a freezing barn, and another trudging through driving sleet as a temporary postman. Above all, I recalled the sheer, screaming tedium of being 16, and counting the minutes until I could escape from the overheated fug of a Christmas night in a fourth-floor two-bedroomed flat jammed with family members bent on nothing more entertaining than watching Morecambe and Wise on the TV.

Christmas and Boxing Day, in the years before the 1980s, were like Sunday squared; nothing to do, plenty of time to do it in, and no-one to do it with. Everything was shut; leaving your family home (other than to test ride a new bike or roller skates) was, if not technically illegal, an act of rebellion liable to have you branded as a teddy-boy delinquent. That character-building boredom has now become as historic as Dickens (whose fault, I am given to understand, Christmas largely is). Nothing much is now shut for more than ten minutes over Christmas, and few kids seem to have the urge to escape from the house to hang out in the cold with their mates (unless they really are teddy-boy delinquents). In fact, it's the kids that want the bloody TV on all night, and seem to have no interest whatsoever in antiquated games that involve chasing paper fish with a rolled up newspaper, or rolling a balloon over your sister-in-law's bottom with your chin. Ah, well, we had to make our own entertainment in those days...

Talking of Dickens, is anyone out there a ghost story fan? It's a genre I've never really explored, mainly because the few I have read did nothing for me. I actually read a couple of M.R. James stories last night, alone in a semi-darkened room, and found them risible; the much-praised "Whistle And I'll Come To You" is, frankly, utterly daft, practically Python-esque in its silliness. Does anyone have any more modern takes on the ghost story to recommend?

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

The Book of Shadows

These days poet Don Paterson is as well-known as any contemporary poet can hope to be, and I am increasingly subject to that twinge of jealousy you get when a personal "discovery" becomes public property.

One of my favourite books of his is not a book of poetry at all, but his collection of notebook jottings and aphorisms called The Book of Shadows, which I often mine for thought-provoking nuggets when I am at a loose end towards the end of the day. I like aphorisms, they're a very un-British genre. The true masters of the form are nearly all European -- Kafka and Lichtenberg spring to mind. They display a condensed cleverness that is deeply embarrassing to the Anglo-Saxon psyche. Paterson is a Scot, of course, which may help.

I was recently struck by this observation of his:

"If only poets and novelists could be translated into musicianhood, even for a few seconds; then we'd see the vast majority, after only a few notes, revealed as a bunch of desperate scrapers and parpers without a tune in their heads or the rudiments of technique. God, the time we would save..."

Don Paterson, The Book of Shadows

How true that is, and how strange that it should be so -- that competence in music should be instantly apparent, whereas incompetence in writing can go undetected for years. In wondering about its more general applicability -- say, to photography -- I realised that this aperçu reveals Don Paterson as a believer in the Real Thing. An essentialist, no less.

I suspect he has not made allowance for the contemporary aesthetic of self-maimed art, of work that is afraid of its own authority, that is intentionally less than competent. Not so much "so bad it's good" as embarrassed by its own self-belief. Quite often, these days, a superficial competence is a marker of kitsch, not art. Even, I'm sorry to say, in music.

It's a strange world we have invented for ourselves, where the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Now where have I heard that before?

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Colour Management

I said in a previous post that it was reassuring to see, looking at the display on my loaner iPhone, that my own Windows colour management setup was not telling me lies. I should qualify that: it may not have been telling me outright, eye-stretching lies, but it was definitely, shall we say, sparing my feelings more than was necessary.

If there's one issue that plagues all but the most conscienscious and technically-minded photographers, it is colour management. It has taken me years to begin to understand the issues and what the most effective solutions are. Indeed, only yesterday was a final piece put in the jigsaw for me. I think I may finally be there.

The basic problem is simple. You take pictures with your digital camera (or scan some film) and import the images into your computer. You edit them to your satisfaction in your image editing software. So far, so good. You then want the colours in the image that comes out of your printer to resemble the colours in the image you see on your monitor as closely as possible. Uh oh! Frustration and great expense in paper and ink ensue. Most of us never progress far beyond that point. It's surprising how flexible the concept of "good enough" can become...

The thing is, your computer monitor fools your eyes into seeing colours using combinations of red, green and blue pixels, the so-called RGB method. You can see this clearly if you ever get water droplets on your screen (let's not go into how this might happen -- Gesundheit!). The droplets act as mini magnifying glasses, and the RGB pixels are clearly visible. Because they are back-illuminated, these RGB colours also have an attractive, jewel-like intensity.

Your printer, on the other hand, fools your eyes into seeing colours using tiny droplets of cyan, magenta, yellow and black ink, the so-called CMYK method, exactly the same as any other printed matter. Because the illusion of these "colours" is produced by splatters of dry CMYK inks on white paper, they are naturally duller than those gorgeous screen colours. They are also just different -- a colour produced by the RGB method on a screen can only be approximated by the CMYK method on paper.

This was most glaringly obvious in the days when my kids used to use simple paint programs to draw stuff on the computer. They would colour the wings of the pterosaur a brilliant pure green, and it would emerge from the printer as a sludgy khaki. Yuk. You learn early on that children, unfortunately, have a far less flexible concept of "good enough" than adults. I understand Steve Jobs was a bit of a toddler, emotionally, which probably explains the brilliant colour-management built in to Apple products...

To make things worse, in between your screen and your printer sits a chain: image files (in various different formats), your image editing software, your printer driver, and several dozen other things I have never heard of, like bit depth, colour space, and chroma subsampling. It's a nightmare: all of these elements at different times have to store, re-interpret, and pass on the colours, in a game of electronic Chinese Whispers. It is a miracle of engineering that anything even remotely like the original image emerges at the other end.

But there are two fairly simple things you can do, that go 90% of the way to eliminating the problem.

The first, is to calibrate your screen. I use a cheap, cut-down version of the calibration device from ColorVision, the Spyder2express. It couldn't be simpler: you plug the cable of the "spyder" into your USB port, dangle it in front of your screen, and run the software. It checks what your display is really showing when it claims to be displaying different colours at different intensities, and builds a corrective profile that is loaded every time you start up the computer. If you fail to re-calibrate the display after your chosen reminder period, it badgers you until you do.

For some years, I muddled through with just this. My printer didn't offer much in the way of colour management, so I simply put up with the mismatch between screen and prints. But then I got my Epson Stylus Photo 1400, and suddenly had the ability to tweak the colours coming out of the printer, too. Finally!

Now, there are two ways to do this, the easy way and the hard way. As these choices are not labelled in this helpful manner, I first chose the hard way a.k.a. "let the printer driver control colour management". It seemed a good idea at the time. Total control, and all that.

Basically, there is a dialogue screen in most printer drivers which enables you to adjust the colour balance, brightness, etc., of the output. If you've ever worked with a colour enlarger in the darkroom, you'll know how this works -- dial in a little more yellow? A little less magenta? No? Maybe try a lot more cyan? No? Perhaps no cyan at all? It is the very embodiment of Samuel Beckett's famous words, "Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better". You'll also know what a STUPID, STUPID waste of your valuable time it is fated to be. Every tweak in one direction requires two counter-tweaks in another, until you are ankle-deep in discarded, annotated test prints. Aaaargh!!

Eventually, I did reach an approximation that worked for me a lot of the time, and -- being an emotionally-mature grown-up -- simply stretched the concept of "good enough" to fit. But the idea that the alternative approach (a.k.a. "let the image editor control colour management") might yield better results nagged in the background, and then I read Ctein's article on Colour Management the other day. I resolved to give it a try.

The idea behind this approach is similar to display calibration i.e. the deviation of your printer from an established norm is measured (for a particular ink and paper combination) and a corrective "ICC" profile provided, which is then used by your image editor to control the printer. To be honest, I had tried using the ICC profiles supplied with the printer very early on, and abandoned them as useless. But the key to this approach is to have a custom profile built for your very own printer/ink/paper combo by someone who knows what they are doing. It seemed worth a try.

I chose UK-based Hermitage Photo Services. Their instructions on how to prepare and send the target prints were simple and clear, the price seemed reasonable (but not suspiciously reasonable), they accepted PayPal, and I received my profile as an email attachment the day after posting the target prints off. Roger Barrett of Hermitage was also extremely helpful with a couple of after-sales queries I had, and I am one extremely satisfied customer. It works!

The only adjustment I now have to make, when printing, is to make some allowance for that difference in brightness between screen and paper. I think of it as the equivalent of making allowance for "dry down" in the traditional darkroom. Basically, I get the image to look right on screen, and save it. To print it subsequently, I now print it twice: once "as is", and once with a temporary adjustment of "levels" to about 1.26, which seems to bring screen and paper into line. Sometimes I prefer the punch of the darker version, sometimes I prefer the accuracy and subtlety of the adjusted version.

But the colours are always right. Finally.

Just another tequila campus sunrise...

Saturday, 10 December 2011


This poem (which I came across recently in an animated version you can see here) spoke to my own increasing absence of mind, slowness of recall, and inability to remember the names of colleagues I have worked with for years. Yes, I have seen my doctor about it, and no, he doesn't think it's anything to worry about. Just the, uh, penumbra of the shadow of eventual personal extinction beginning to extend itself over my being. That's not actually what he said. I can't remember his name just now, though I know it begins with L, like the river in the poem.

It's not a poem that goes much beyond its own surface meaning, but it's nicely put and nicely made, and I like the line about joining those "who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle".

Forgetfulness, by Billy Collins

The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read,
never even heard of,

as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

Long ago you kissed the names of the nine Muses goodbye
and watched the quadratic equation pack its bag,
and even now as you memorize the order of the planets,

something else is slipping away, a state flower perhaps,
the address of an uncle, the capital of Paraguay.

Whatever it is you are struggling to remember,
it is not poised on the tip of your tongue,
not even lurking in some obscure corner of your spleen.

It has floated away down a dark mythological river
whose name begins with an L as far as you can recall,
well on your own way to oblivion where you will join those
who have even forgotten how to swim and how to ride a bicycle.

No wonder you rise in the middle of the night
to look up the date of a famous battle in a book on war.
No wonder the moon in the window seems to have drifted
out of a love poem that you used to know by heart.

Lowe! That's it... Dr. Lowe! Phew.

Monday, 5 December 2011

East and West

There are two facades on the campus which, under the right conditions, always get my attention. The first is made of metal panels and decorated glass and faces east, and reflects the rising sun like a mirror:

The second faces west, and is a cliff face of glass sitting over a shallow atrium with narrow walkways lined with coloured panels, and reflects the late afternoon sun:

It's not every day that both buildings put on a show, but today they did.

Sunday, 4 December 2011

Phone Fun

Instinctively, I am an anti-Apple person. I have always used DOS/Windows, and use Unix a lot of the time at work and, although I have no particularly warm feelings towards Microsoft or Sun, I find Apple products over-designed and essentially patronising with their "don't worry your pretty little head about that" attitude to basic things like file management and navigation. Of course, a lot of people like it like that, and don't want to worry their pretty little heads about nerdy stuff like that.

However, it is impossible not to acknowledge the hands-down superiority of Apple in matters of colour management and touch-screen technology, and I have long resented but understood the "Apple only" mentality of anyone designing a fine art or photographic mobile "app". So it was with a deal of curiosity and anticipation that I found myself at the receiving end of the loan of a sleek, white iPhone 4S this week.

Why this bounteous good fortune? Have you seen what those things cost? Well, basically, we are developing a mobile app within the University for students, and the library is a core element. But, clearly, it's hard for me to be involved if I can't see what the thing looks like on an iPhone, so the university, like a wealthy parent, has kindly provided me with one until the end of the project. Cor, thanks, uni!

Obviously, the first things I downloaded were (a) my Curriculum e-book and (b) Tom Phillips' Humument app. What can I say? The screen quality is sensational, and the responsiveness of the touch navigation (compared to, say, the Android phones I have tried) is absolutely first class. I am simply blown away by the sheer eye-candy of the colours: the Humument app is just a visual delight - for a mere £4.50, it is a ridiculous bargain. I am also reassured that the colours, contrast and brightness of my own work is pretty much as I'd expect it i.e. my own Windows screen and colour-management setup is not telling me lies.

The camera looks fun, too. Obviously, that screen makes a lot of difference, but I begin to see why people talk increasingly seriously of their iPhone as their go-anywhere device for snaps. Five megapixels isn't much, but it's enough for the equivalent of 6"x4" prints, plus you've got all that social media stuff that lets you send pictures (sorry, pix) of yourself to all your "friends" that I'm too old to understand. Then there are the apps... The cult of Instagram and Hipstamatic is obviously appealing, if you're the sort of person who likes to fake the look of 1970s Polaroids. Am I that sort of person? I'll let you know, but I have to say I never once used the "art" filters built in to the Olympus Pen. Other apps, e.g. those for working out the position of the sun and moon, or lens hyperfocal distances, could be more useful. I'll try to remember to use the camera while I've still got the phone.

However, as a phone I'm unconvinced... For a start, why would any sane person carry such a head-turning, universally-recognised and covetable gadget in public? You can get a perfectly decent Android smartphone free on the cheapest pay-monthly contracts. OK, you can't play with A Humument on the bus, but would you ever dare get the thing out anyway? I suppose it depends where you live.

Then there's the navigation. The touch screen is a joy to use, but there's a complete absence of signposts and buttons. I suppose they are thought to clutter up the simplicity of the design. What BS! How are you supposed to go back a step, for example (Android has a special button for this)? And why such a reliance on shortcuts and arcane twiddly finger movements? For example, I was astonished to find there is neither a stop nor a comma on the "alphabet" keyboard -- you have to swap to the "numbers and symbols" keyboard for those. What? I'm sure there's a shortcut, but... I'm seeing a triumph of design over sense (and I'm hearing the words, "No! NO!! There can only be ONE button!").

I suppose the real test will be how I feel when I have to hand it back in March...

St. Catherine's Hill seen across the Twyford road cutting
(and not through an iPhone)

Saturday, 3 December 2011


The light has been relentlessly grey this week, with the weather on the verge of rain pretty much every day. I was on strike on Wednesday (does this man never work?) but for once chose to spend the day at home (all right, in bed). Let the young 'uns freeze their butts on the picket line.

Talking of impassable barriers, one of my old lunchtime haunts, the so-called Valley Garden, is still closed for "improvements", and my heart sinks whenever I look over the fence to see (a) the sort of "improvements" that are going on and (b) the wonderful autumnal scenes that are going waste. Not to mention the fruit: when my daughter was a toddler at the university day nursery we used to go for lunchtime walks in the Valley Garden and pick the apples, that otherwise would have rotted in the grass. She tells me she still sometimes dreams about our Secret Magic Garden.

The contrast is rather lacking in this "over the fence" picture, but the yellows and oranges are still worth the effort. What is needed is a natural reflector of some kind. Hmmm... Turn around 180 degrees, and that is precisely what you have. The Students' Union swimming pool is clad in corrugated metal sheets, that give an eery "interior" feel to the immediate surroundings. It's like being in one of those giant studios that are used for photographing cars.

You wouldn't think it was the same day.