Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The Cento

I only recently became aware of the poetic form known as the cento. It's pronounced "sento", and not, as I had originally thought, "chento".  It also has nothing to do with 100; apparently the name is derived from a Greek work for a patchwork. Thus, if you like to get really pedantic, some people claim its plural is "centones".* Blimey! The cento is hardly one of the mainstream poetic forms, though, and gets taken out of the versifier's wardrobe even less frequently than a virtuoso straitjacket like the villanelle. Even so, it's curious how you can study and enjoy an art-form for decades and never come across something like this.

So what is it? Basically, it's a poem made up entirely of quoted lines from other poets. I like this idea. There's a good one in Stephen Knight's recent volume The Prince of Wails:
The last poem, called “99 Poems”, is astonishingly rich and intriguing: just the title makes this small book feel massive! Why 99? It is an elegy, so perhaps Knight’s father died at age 99, almost as long-lived as the centenarians we just met in “On Turning Fifty” and worthy of commemoration, worth staying up late for! In any case, the poem is a collection of 99 lines borrowed with great affection from elegies and epitaphs and maybe other sources too, perhaps film, across the centuries, and arranged by first letter from A to Y, starting with the beautiful line (possibly Thomas Hardy?) – A face that, though in shadow, still appears – and ending with the simple physicality of Your hands. Both images – the dead who re-appear and the father’s hand which holds his child’s – recur throughout the book, gaining power along the way. And it can be no accident that this last poem ends on the letter Y, not Z: there is no final letter in the alphabet of this wonderfully haunting collection.’
Chris Beckett, (full review
In fact, I really like this idea; it's postmodernism avant la lettre (considerably so: the earliest examples date from the 3rd or 4th centuries CE, and generally involve cutting and pasting lines from Virgil or Homer). It seem William Burroughs was not quite the innovator he thought, though the cento is not really the same as the "found" poem, and very little chance is involved in the cento proper. Quite the opposite: a cento has to be carefully mined and constructed from existing poetry.

In a way, you might see a photographic sequence as, in essence, a sort of cento. Your body of work is a series of "quotations" from the world around you, and to make a sequence you have to select and re-order out-takes from this larger body to create a new work. Or maybe not; a true photographic cento would involve, ah, appropriating photos from others' books, and creating something strikingly new from them. But, put that way, it doesn't sound quite so interesting, does it? That would be what we call an anthology...

* There's a nice little joke about such pedantry in a recent Wondermark, in which one character uses the plural "utopiaux" for "utopias". The  cartoon's mouseover caption reads, "No, of course utopiaux is not actually a word. The correct plural form is utopipodes".

[N.B. I'm away for the next week in a land where the phone signal can't penetrate the clouds, and the internet is a mere rumour. I'll get to any comments when I return.]

Monday, 28 March 2016

Two Trees

A couple of characterful trees from the Itchen water meadows, which have been particularly watery in recent weeks. I don't think the pollarded one below is going to make it through another storm, as it's now little more than a hollow shell. Perhaps I should have titled this post "One and a Half Trees"...

That second one reminded me of the sort of postcard I might rescue from one of those tightly-packed trays you find in second-hand bookshops.

[N.B. I'm away for the next week in a land where the phone signal can't penetrate the clouds, and the internet is a mere rumour. I'll get to any comments when I return.]

Friday, 25 March 2016

The Camp Bells Shall Be Coming

There is a species of online bloviation, generally to be found in the comments section of blogs, which opens with the acronym "IANAL" (i.e. "I am not a lawyer"), almost always followed by the word "but..."  This post, and others like it (for example the recent So So post), should probably be similarly prefixed, but with the signification "I am not a linguist".  So let's just say I am something of a barrack-room linguist, and get on with the "but..." bit.

I have a certain facility with language, and an abnormal level of formal education, but it is nonetheless a fact that much of my linguistic usage is "non-standard".  To an extent, this reveals my upbringing in the skilled working class of East Anglia, with strong dialectal admixtures from London, 1970s youth culture, and academese.  I also have a fondness for neologisms and "lively" language.  Blend it all up and you get a fairly strong idiolect.  We've all got one, but, like noses, some are more noticeable than others.

However, I would resist any suggestion that my particular (peculiar?) way with words is in any way incorrect, and I am arrogant enough to regard my usage as the norm against which all other dialects vary – including RP or "posh".  Yes, it is the world, and not me, that is out of step.  And note that use of "me" instead of the preposterous and pedantic "I".  You wouldn't catch I saying that, boy.

That said, I am always puzzled by those who maintain a strong idiolect in the face of all opposition and correction, when it is simply wrong.  I had a primary school teacher who insisted on pronouncing the surname Campbell as two distinct words (Camp Bell), which was almost as annoying to classmate Billy Campbell as her insistence on calling me "Chiz-hole-m" was to me.*  Similarly, I had a senior colleague at work who, mystifyingly, insisted on pronouncing the name of the port city just down the coast from us as "Port's Mouth", a truly heroic idiosyncrasy.  I never did manage to find the right moment to ask him why.

Pronunciation is easy to fix, of course, if you're bovvered about it.  Most of us aren't, these days, but it's not so long ago that an elective cosmetic accent-job was part of the higher education package.  I think my parents were a little disappointed when, after one term at Oxford, I didn't come home to our Stevenage council flat talking like Brian Sewell.  Harder to change, though, are the more deeply-ingrained habits of language, simple things like the use of pronouns and the "modal" and "auxiliary" verbs, a particular minefield in English usage.

One that has always puzzled me is "will" versus "shall".  I have always thought of "shall" as posh, and rarely, if ever use it, at least in my spoken language.  It feels as alien in my mouth as a phrase like "would you care for a biscuit?" (that all depends on what's wrong with it, missus).  To say "I shall go to the cinema tonight" sounds absurd to me.  In my linguistic tribe, "going to" and "will" do all the necessary work of futurity, admittedly with the occasional use of the conditional construction "Ish'll/Wesh'll probbly" (as in, "What you doin' t'nite?" "Ish'll probbly stay in").

So I eventually looked it up.  It seems the official line on "will v. shall" in Anglo-English is that "shall" is used with first person pronouns (I and we) to form the future tense, while "will" is used with the second and third persons.  However, when it comes to expressing a strong determination to do something, the situation is reversed: "will" is used with the first person, and "shall" with the second and third.  Well I never!  But then you only have to think about this for a minute to realise how simplistic this "rule" is.  Wikipedia's article gives a far more subtle account of the complexities.

Like so many of these things, a lot depends on your level of literacy, and how far your speech patterns have been adjusted to reflect the "proper" orthographic and grammatical norms of print.  To say "Camp-Bell" instead of "Camble" is presumably an extreme example of ostentatious over-compensation.  But that's how it's written, Billy!  Coming from the other direction, there are those people who say (and write) "should of" instead of "should have", presumably because they don't read enough to have registered the contraction "should've".  Somewhere in between are the legions of homespun pedants who think "to look good" is ungrammatical or insist the plural of octopus is "octopi", the snobs who affect blimpish pre-War pronunciations like "Rumsey" (Romsey), "Rafe" (Ralph), and "goff" (golf), and the dressed-down political toffs who think randomly inserted glottal stops make them popular with the common people.

If I think of the vernacular usage of modals and auxiliaries, though, I remember my grandmother, East Anglian to the bone (or "boon", as she would have said), who virtually never used the words "must not", generally using "don't have to" in its place.  It takes a while – even the odd clip round the ear – to realise that the exclamation "Oh, y'don't hatta do that, boy!" is a serious admonition, and in no way a suggestion that your proposed course of action is optional.

* For non-English speakers: the correct pronunciation of Campbell is "Camble", and my own proudly-borne Scottish/Scandinavian name is pronounced "Chizzm".  And, yes, I'm afraid it can sound a little dodgy in the wrong context, particularly to Americans...

[N.B. I'm away for the next week in a land where the phone signal can't penetrate the clouds, and the internet is a mere rumour. I'll get to any comments when I return.]

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

The Semprini Effect

These two contrasting scenarios – bright, rushing water and stagnant scum – are immediately next to each other, either side of the sluice that still exists on the Itchen Navigation, where St. Catherine's Lock and water-wheel used to be. You can stand on the lock, look down one side and see a grim accumulation of whatever has drifted downstream, and on the other be dazzled by the gleam of sunlight dancing on the foam and spray of a violent torrent of water. This has something to do with a principle of fluid dynamics established by Bernoulli, Venturi, Semprini, or possibly Garibaldi – one of those guys. Whoever, you really don't want to fall in, either side.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Scotch Mist

When one of us failed to see something lying in plain sight, for example a school-bag, my father would brandish it and use an expression which seems to have fallen into disuse: "What's this, then, Scotch mist?" It's a peculiar thing to say, and I assume it was something that was current in the army during WW2 or in engineering factories in the 1940s and 50s. Perhaps it was a catchphrase from a long-forgotten radio show? I have no idea why "Scotch mist" entered into the language in this way, but as a result it has always been a mysterious entity at the back of my mind.

It lurks there along with "bread and pullit" ("What's for tea, Mum?"), and various other disturbing and unresolved playground and nursery rhyme themes and scenarios. Why on earth was Wee Willie Winkie running through the town in his nightgown? Is the moon really an aching drum? Why would anyone need to have buckles on their knees? And what is a vainite? Funny, how as you get older these things start to emerge again, but leaving most of their mystery behind, back there with the Scotch mist.

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Game On

One of the main casualties of the Great Backup Drive Disaster of 2015 was the increasingly elaborate set of "rings" I had been constructing under the broad heading "Ring Hoard". Unaccountably, I had both failed to back these up onto CD/DVD media and was also keeping them exclusively on that one backup drive, so pretty much lost the lot. So it goes. With them went my enthusiasm for the whole project.

Yesterday, having reached saturation point with book sequencing – anyone who thinks this is not work has never tried it – I found myself playing around with some familiar old moves, and remembered why I had been enthusiastic in the first place. It's fun. The pure fun of playing a game with a few simple rules and free play of imagination.

Now, despite recently "inventing" the Golden Wasp game, I am not a keen player of games. I don't care enough about winning and, when it comes to anything involving cards or pieces on boards, have the concentration span and strategic imagination of a three-year-old. I make a very good dummy partner at Bridge. Despite the enthusiasm of my children for immersive role-playing games, Nintendo, and the like, I have never played a computer game. I'd rather stare at the ceiling, or watch my own "eyelid movies". And quite often do.

Which is where the rings come in, I suppose. "Straight" photography, obviously, is all about making edited selections from the real, visual world, but this sort of graphic design puts your own imagination up front and centre, and sets you the challenge: OK, punk, make me something worth looking at, make me something rich and strange. And that's one game I can be bothered to learn how to play.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Safe but Ugly

The eternal battle between the aficionados of elegant disrepair (a.k.a. wabi-sabi) and the philistine fixer-uppers goes on... Look what they done to my arch, ma! (see the previous photos in the post Stop That!). Even the pretty clouds have been swept away.

It puts me in mind of the famous haiku by Kobayashi Issa:
Don't worry, spiders,
I keep house

(Robert Hass translation) *
I suppose it is safe, now... But, rather ugly. Some of those original bricks are quite old – at least 18th century, I'd guess, if not older. But, never mind, it was new once, and will be old again. Even if it does take 200 years. Entropy is on our side and, like the devil, has all the best tunes.

In compensation, here's another view of the iron bridge hidey-hole. Something to enjoy while it's still around.

* The translation of haiku is a tricky business. According to that great authority, Some Guy on the Web, the original Japanese goes like this:

sumi | no | kumo | anji | na | susu | wa | toranu | zo yo

corner | 's | spider | worry | do not | soot | as for | (not) remove | "look!" (a combination of an intensifier particle and an exclamatory particle)

R.H. Blyth rendered this haiku as:

Spiders in the corners,
Don't worry!
I'm not going to sweep them.

I'd have thought something like this (which, ahem, also happens to have 17 syllables) would be closer to the original:

Relax, spider in the corner!
Look! I never sweep the soot in there.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Secret Station

I don't know whether it's the legacy of a childhood spent making camps in the woods, or expressive of some deep psychological quirk, but I have always had a liking for secret places, especially the ones hidden in plain sight, where you can see and not be seen. I spent this afternoon exploring several such places around St. Catherine's Hill which I hadn't visited for a while.

Most notable is this old iron railway bridge, a remnant of the old single-track railway that used to run over the viaduct.  The track has long gone, but an elevated bank runs parallel to the official path alongside the Itchen Navigation canal, and the old track bed is still there, hidden among the trees. It takes more effort to access than most people are prepared to expend, so it's relatively unvisited, except by teen stoners and taggers looking for a place to hang out, and by the occasional adult familiar with their tracks and traces.

In two places there are bridges crossing what must once have been the canal's main course. Up inside, one of them is a little walled haven, with the remnants of an iron and plank platform. Whether it was once a tiny station, or whether it was there for track workers to get access alongside a stationary train, I don't know. But it's a fine place just to lean on the parapet and enjoy the sunshine, and feel the wind stirring the trees all around. It retains much of the spirit of the "old" viaduct, before it was restored and turned into a rather soulless cycleway.

What I was really doing was looking for an unusual vantage point onto the motorway.  That section of my book sequence lacks something, and I was hoping to find it today. Not quite, but maybe another day, with the sun in a different quarter.

Sunday, 13 March 2016

The Lark Ascending

More backfiles action, searching for overlooked book-sequence candidates, this time looking at Twyford Down. I love high, rolling chalk downland; it's the countryside I grew up in, and I'm sure part of the appeal to me of the St. Catherine's / Twyford project has been simply to have a reason to walk these hills as often as possible, in any weather, in all seasons.

In southern Britain downland occurs in various bands, where the geological syncline and anticline that ripples up from the south coast, down under the London basin and up again in the Chilterns has eroded away to expose the thick band of Cretaceous chalk that lies between softer layers of clays and sands. These lengths of high, dry upland form natural highways, and routes such as the Ridgeway and the Icknield Way were established in prehistoric times and used until reliable, year-round roads could be laid in the valley bottoms.

Like so much in this little corner of England south-east of Winchester, there is a watchful, slightly haunted air of abandonment. Something strange happens to the light up here. These hills are not particularly high – about 460 feet at their highest point – but on a clear day you get that intense awareness of the thin blue end of the spectrum you get in mountainous regions, and the high warbling of skylarks in summer is its aural equivalent. Cue Vaughan Williams, The Lark Ascending...

I am trying to keep a sense of that watchfulness and that weirdness in this sequence. The main danger in landscape photography, I think, is to succumb to uncomplicated beauty; this is the royal road to "me too" work, the sort of pretty but signature-less imagery that (as I complained in an earlier post, Bye, Bye Landscape Photography, Dear) gets given away anonymously as illustrative material. It's not an easy pitfall to avoid, however aware of it you may be in principle, but it helps if your sensibility is a little skewed, and you generally prefer to take the road less travelled. How far I will have succeeded on this score, I suppose, is not for me to judge. After all, in a quote from Don DeLillo I read recently, "we're all one beat away from becoming elevator music".

Saturday, 12 March 2016

Common Ground

I went for a walk on Southampton Common on Friday, and the crows were out in force, mainly pulling off twigs for nest material. The urgency of the task means they are more approachable than usual. Yeah, yeah, what do you want? Can't you see I'm busy?

I thought this grafitti, carefully stencilled onto one of those ubiquitous galvanized utility boxes, was quite apposite, following the sentiments in the previous post and its comments. Although it seems that the person who felt the need to make this public intervention still thinks TV is the enemy...

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Stop That! (You Are Being Watched)

In a recent TLS review of a book on the impact of social media (The Four-Dimensional Human, by Laurence Scott) I read these interesting but oddly familiar sentiments:
“It’s astonishing to think how in the last twenty years the limits and coherence of our bodies have been so radically redefined”, he observes. “We have an everywhereness to us now that inevitably alters our relationship to those stalwart human aspects of self-containment, remoteness and isolation” ... But “everywhereness” takes a toll, “for it can make life feel both oppressively crowded and, when its promise is wasted, uniquely solitary”.
Moments that are untweeted or uninstagrammed come to seem lifeless, incomplete; “It has become part of the rhythms of almost every waking hour to look for a word or a sign from elsewhere”. Because “everywhereness” demands a blurring of here and there, it “can produce a sense of absenteeism, and the suspicion that, despite being in many places at once, we’re not fully inhabiting any of them”.
Others have made similar observations. In fact, substitute "photography" for "social media", and it may even seem wearily familiar. This technological thing you like to do gets in the way of real life! Indeed, we could point yet again to Walter Benjamin's essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction", and doubtless a whole genealogy of jeremiads stretching back into antiquity on the inverse relationship between technology and "authentic" experience, and wonder when, if ever, anyone has truly experienced anything authentically since people first started gathering around a fire, thus failing totally to really get into the true experience of an Ice Age winter. Wimps! Get back out here and suffer! It's meant to be cold!

But that bit about the "everywhereness" of social media making the world simultaneously overcrowded and lonely does ring true, doesn't it? In many ways this craving for an empty ubiquity might be said to be filling a psychic void left by the decline of religion. This is probably simplistic, theologically, but until relatively recently I think the vernacular experience of religion was:
  • You are watched
  • You are known
  • You will be judged
  • You can have no secrets from God(s)
Christianity's USP was the addition of "you will be forgiven" (although the Christian church's unforgivable contribution was to add the clause "... maybe... but only if you do as we say").

Obviously, the downside of this was to experience oppressive and disproportionate guilt over the smallest acts of transgression, but there was also a major comfort in believing that you were never truly alone, that your smallest acts of kindness or cruelty had been noted, had significance, and ultimate, existential consequences.

With the decline of religion, art took up some of the slack. A conventional novel, for example, is the mirror-image of this consoling belief: you yourself, as reader, are the silent, angelic witness to the travails of fictional characters, in whatever desperately solitary predicaments they may be portrayed; it's an inverted experience of omniscience. But this is very far from the child-like faith in a personal, all-knowing, all-seeing guardian angel. Knowing all, seeing all, you can nonetheless do nothing to help, except stop reading! It's more like that sobering moment when you become a parent, and realise you have been handed the job (for a while, anyway) of being – or attempting inadequately to be – some poor child's all-knowing, all-seeing guardian and guide.

Collecting and giving "likes" looks rather like earning and bestowing Get-Out-of-Purgatory-Free Points (a.k.a. "indulgences"), once you remove the underpinning theology (get me Martin Luther!). It also looks a lot more like an addictive palliative for the anxiety of isolation rather than any means of engaging with its causes. I  can haz mo bettah kittehs, nao? Pleez? But there is no doubting that the social media clearly do something for a great many people. A very great many. It does no good for preachers and teachers to complain about the shallowness or triviality. We are shallow, comfort-seeking creatures, who rejoiced in the convenience of fire and warm clothing in the face of the harsh "reality" of an Ice Age winter, and who would rather watch Breaking Bad than read Proust. But to regard engagement with Facebook and Twitter as an actual social life strikes me as close kin to the belief that TV personalities and soap-opera characters are your actual personal friends. Though how and how far this differs from believing that Emma Bovary is a character possessed of a real human psychology is an interesting question.

I'm certainly in no position to judge when it comes to an energetic social life. If, like me, you're a "high-functioning introvert", you probably find (real) socialising highly enjoyable, but very tiring. Three hours is about my limit. The pleasure of my own company then becomes a necessity, not a terrible burden. My father was much the same: he loved a party, would sparkle after a few drinks – you might even mistake him for an extrovert – but famously would fetch his pyjamas to warm in front of the fire to alert guests that they were about to outstay their welcome. I suppose the contemporary equivalent might be to ostentatiously turn off the WiFi router, especially if your guests are all face-down over their phones checking their incoming messages, like peasants fiddling with their prayer beads.*

But, my, is that the time? Good night, everybody!

* Although my daughter insists that NO-ONE ELSE turns off their router overnight. I always do. It saves electricity and means our IP address is new each morning, and thus makes us a moving target for the Forces of Evil.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Green Chapel

Of course, the other thing that happens when putting a book sequence together is that you discover you don't have some of the pictures you need. In this case, I realised I needed some much better shots of the Mizmaze, the turf-cut maze up on the top of St. Catherine's Hill. So, it being a beautifully crisp and clear March day on Monday, I got in the car and went to get some.

Talk about "sixpence a pint"... The air up there was intoxicating.  As I walked round the ramparts of the hill-fort deer started up out of the undergrowth, and the thickets were alive with birds seriously getting into the business of the nesting season. It was a perfect afternoon just to be out and standing on what passes for the roof of the world in these parts, and I think I got what I went for. Though a very tall step-ladder would have helped.

The top of St. Catherine's Hill, within the embankments, is a strangely compelling place, especially during the week when you more or less have it to yourself. "Numinous" is not too strong a word. That some idiot has burned the bases of a couple of the tall beeches in the crowning copse, undermining the trunks so dangerously that they have had to be felled, seems a most unwise act of impiety. If I had to find a suitable location for the "green chapel" where Sir Gawain has to encounter the Green Knight and submit to his axe, this would certainly be high on my list. I suspect some kid in Winchester has some bad dreams and weird encounters coming his way.

Sunday, 6 March 2016

January Days

One of the major pluses of building a sequence is the necessity of taking a fresh look at your backfiles. Good things always get overlooked and, as I've said before, your instinctive eye when you're in the act of photographing is often smarter than the evaluative eye you bring to bear on the files soon after.  In time, your judgement catches up with your instinct, and you finally see what you saw. First thought, best thought... Also, when you're looking for candidates to fill particular gaps, photos that may not have made much impact as standalones, initially, suddenly reveal their merits. Not least when they demonstrate that not every day is a sunny day with fluffy white clouds in a blue sky.

I remember taking the picture above very well. It was the afternoon of New Year's Day 2014, and it was absolutely pissing down with rain, as it had been for some days. The Itchen water meadows had flooded, and I stood beneath the only arch of the viaduct I could get anywhere near, even wearing wellingtons and waterproof leggings, wondering quite seriously about my sanity. I clicked off a few shots – a photograph taken outdoors every New Year's Day is a longstanding private commitment-cum-compulsion – and headed back to the car. It was not so much a case of getting into the zone as just getting out of the rain.

I also remember the one below, from January 2013. We don't get much snow these days, especially on the South Coast, so it's always a bit of an occasion. We went for a walk around St. Catherine's Hill, and enjoyed ourselves tutting at the irresponsibility of Winchester's inhabitants, tearing up the hillside (an official "Site of Special Scientific Interest", because of its chalk downland flora and invertebrates) with their sleds and ski-gear. That stairway is an amazing thing: if you're in need of aerobic exercise, even a brisk walk up it will get the blood pounding in your ears.  But it's there to keep people off the hillside, of course, not to facilitate sledging. Tsk!

Both photographs were taken with the 16 megapixel micro 4/3 Panasonic G3 and, in retrospect, I'm surprised at the relatively noisy and granular files it produces, compared with those of the same resolution (but ever so slightly larger APS-C format) Fuji X-E1.  They're OK for my purposes, however, which makes me realise what a compromise my photography is between convenience and image quality. Sure, I could invest in "better", higher-resolution kit, but I'd never get the sort of pictures I like unless the camera could be routinely carried in a small shoulder-bag and, of course, used without a tripod.

Though I notice that many full-on landscapists are now going for the very compact "full-frame" 42 megapixel Sony Alpha 7R II... Which makes me realise that my other, overriding compromise factor is price! I like being a cheap photographer, using yesterday's cameras, bought when on sale and second-hand, with kit zooms and bottom-of-the-range lenses.  Works for me...

Saturday, 5 March 2016

Eternal Wisdom

I've finally – finally! – got down to the work of collating the photographs of the Hockley Viaduct, St. Catherine's Hill and the surrounding area. As you can imagine, there is a lot of work to choose from but, as always, once you start looking for the genuine A-listers (plus their companions of choice), eliminate the impostors, and put the reserve candidates on hold, things narrow down quite quickly. It is very like shortlisting applicants for a job, with the pleasant difference that there can be fifty or so successful outcomes. Come to think of it, the interviewer's mantra ("Can they do the job? Will they do the job? Will they fit in?") is very appropriate.

During this process of evaluative scrutiny connections and threads also start to emerge, which are what will hold the book together, thematically. I say "book", but I think I mean "books". For reasons I needn't go into, I decided to limit myself to forty-eight pages. If nothing else, this is the sort of constraint within which creativity thrives. As soon as you know you can't do something, you immediately start thinking of ways of getting round that self-imposed limitation, the cooking starts, and the thin soup eventually gets reduced to a tasty gravy. You hope. In this case, it quickly became clear that to include all six main themes – the viaduct, the hill, the water-meadows, the M3 motorway, the river Itchen, and Twyford Down – in just forty-eight pages would result in a hopelessly congested and compressed sequence, with no room for it to develop or have any breathing space. After some thought, I realised I clearly needed to make two books, one for the viaduct, the M3, and the Itchen – a sort of "passing through" volume – and one for the hill, the meadows and the down – the "permanent residents" volume. Yes, I know, it's a double album...

I've started with the "viaduct" volume. I'm still very much in the early stages, and anything might change, not least the title, but here are a few page spreads I think are already working quite well.

One constant practical challenge is mixing and matching photographs with different properties, not least their aspect ratio and resolution, as a result of having gone through two micro 4/3rds cameras (Panasonic GF1 and G3) and two APS-C cameras (Fuji X-100 and XE-1) in the five-year period of this "project", if we can dignify such dilatory picture-making with that description. The second spread is a good example.  I could crop the "fatter" image, of course, and perhaps I will, but it would mean losing some of the accidental markings that make the pairing work, so I probably won't. But maybe there's a possible "fat/thin" rhythm I could exploit to good effect?  What was I saying about creative constraints?

This is "plain vanilla" book design, of course, with single images centred on blank white pages. When I first became interested in self-made books, I indulged in all the fancy stuff that serves to flatter one's idea of oneself as "challenging" the stuffy old conventions of book design. Jumbled images, ostentatious typography, concertina folds, pop-ups, translucent pages with text that overlaid the images, coloured pages, torn pages, loose pages... In the end, the photographs were serving as mere decoration within these self-indulgent exercises in factitious "originality".

An eminent photographer, seeing one of these efforts, said to me, "Mike, you need to decide whether you are a photographer or a book artist; I don't think you can be both..." I thought he was wrong at the time, but gradually came to realise how much I was trivialising my own work by treating it as just another design element in the artist's book brew. I then saw the eternal wisdom of the traditional photo-book which pushes the photographs to the fore, and then modestly gets out of the way, in the same way that clear black type on white paper is unsurpassed and unsurpassable as a way of presenting text. Although to realise the truth of this you may have had to have tried to read the "underground" press in its pink-on-purple heyday.

Wednesday, 2 March 2016


Sea, but no horizon

If you're a bit of a collector – you know, nothing mad or unbalanced, just a bit focussed – you will have a mental list of items you are looking out for; what are known as desiderata. As I indicated in a recent post, I have a thing for photo-books. Not just collections of glossy photographs – you can keep your Charlie Waite and your Steve McCurry books, thanks – but items where a carefully-considered sequence has been collated into a book-object that matches and enhances the photographer's vision. This need not involve a "fine" binding. Some of the most interesting photo-books are mere stapled pamphlets or perfect-bound exhibition catalogues, and many of the least interesting are tacky, OTT items, where the luxurious binding mocks the lack of ambition of the contents.

Unless you're very wealthy, you need to define and develop a personal taste and concentrate on whatever falls within its boundaries. Practically speaking, as with music, this often means following the careers of particular individuals or groups. I will buy anything, sight unseen, published by Thomas Joshua Cooper, Jem Southam, or Susan Derges, for example. If, like me, you have a parallel interest in the "artist's book", you might even cultivate a relationship with certain artists with a particular interest in the conjunction of photography and "bookwork"; I have several hand-made items produced by American photographer Raymond Meeks, for example.

One of the frustrations of this sort of focussed collecting is missing out on an early work, which has now become more-or-less unobtainable. As I indicated in the earlier post, booksellers who specialise in scarce photo-books generally ask preposterous prices for such books, often in the thousands. That's not a game I am willing or able to play.  But the game I do enjoy is keeping an eye out for certain items which are so scarce that sellers may not realise quite what they have.  This happens less often, these days, when aggregating online services like Abebooks mean that even the most ignorant book dealer can run a check on the going price for any item that looks like it might have value.  But if a book is scarce enough, no copies will be available for sale anywhere in the world, with the result that no "me too" pricing data is available. The dealer must then decide their own fair price*, based on whatever knowledge they can bring to bear.

For many years, high on my desiderata list has been a book I failed to buy at the time, because I was not yet interested in its author. Garry Fabian Miller has since gone on to become reasonably well-known as one of a small group of British "cameraless" photographers, that includes Susan Derges and Adam Fuss. The exhibition "Shadow Catchers" at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2010 brought their work to a wider public. But Miller's earliest work "Sections of England: the Sea Horizon" – a sequence of 40 views across the Severn Estuary made from the roof of his house in Clevedon, near Bristol – was produced with a Hasselblad camera, and first exhibited in 1977 when he was only nineteen. The work was then shown at the Arnolfini Gallery in Bristol in 1979, and again in 1997 at the Hue-Williams Gallery, accompanied by a large and beautifully-produced catalogue on heavy paper with the images printed separately and tipped-in, titled The Sea Horizon.

That catalogue is scarce. The simple fact is that I have never seen a copy of The Sea Horizon for sale. It is scarcer than scarce. At one point, I actually wrote to Garry Fabian Miller, to ask whether he might still have any copies. He does have a very few.  But his reply included this information:
750 copies were printed in 1997 of which probably 150 were sold. Of the remaining 600, most were destroyed in the MOMART warehouse fire. I have a very small number that remain. People occasionally tell me that copies sell for in excess of £2000 on rare book dealers websites. I last sold a copy in November for £1000.
That would explain it.  Forget about it. Out of my league.

Now, a recent purchase of mine was Brighter Later, by Brian David Stevens.  It's a lovely book, and I would venture to suggest that Stevens has seen and been influenced by Miller's Sea Horizon work, as his book consists of pairs of square images looking out to sea, one pair from each of the coastal counties of Britain, with a very similar sense of letting the sea, the light and the weather do the work. At any rate, it put me in mind of Miller's "Sea Horizon" pictures and, just out of curiosity and for old time's sake, I did a quick Google search for "sea horizon".


I couldn't believe my luck.   A single copy was for sale – on Amazon of all places – at a very reasonable price.  Needless to say, it is now mine, and has taken its rightful place on the Absurdly Big Books shelf, alongside Todd Hido's A Road Divided, Mark Power's Die Mauer ist weg!, and Raymond Meeks' A Clearing.

* Incidentally, has anyone else noticed the hyper-bonkers prices for some items on Amazon, which are not scarce at all, and are offered by dealers with names like "MEGA BOOKS"?  Check out this ultra-collectible item, for example. It's very odd, but too frequent to be simple "finger trouble", though I suppose it might be "automatic bulk pricing algorithm trouble". Or maybe there's some scam going on? Money-laundering, perhaps, or maybe a storage unit burns down occasionally, oops, and the insurance value is based on the Amazon inventory?