Friday, January 25, 2013

1979

Mornin' varmints.
Well this week we put up ashore and loaded on some new cargo, and one of the things we brought aboard was a big bag o'sorrow. 'Course we didn't realise it was that.
Now I run Happy Shippe, anyone will tell 'ee that, but sometimes sorrow is a powerful thing and with Sheephouse, we didn't find out till later that that black bag contained some powerful memories for him.
I'll tell 'ee. I've read what he has written, and it'll wring yer withers. It's sad stuff, so you've been warned.
On a positive note though, we dressed Mog up in that small bear outfit again just to cheer him up, and before you knew it, the sorrow was forgotten, and then Mog blundered into the bag, releasing the catch by getting caught on it, and all these black sorrowful and velvety butterflies was let loose into the cabin and there was that darn cat a chasin' and a swipin' at them, till they was no more.
And you know what, Sheephouse (ever a man to play his cards close to his chest) didn't look sad at all, what with all his memories getting caught and crushed by a stupid cat dressed as a small bear!
No, infact he laughed. A great laugh,. And then he reached into another of his bags and brought out a lovely picture of a smilin' man and a smilin' lady.
Beautiful they were.
And we knew.
Oh yes we knew.
And he smiled and we smiled.
And then he reached down and picked up Mog the bear and sat him on his lap, and stroked him till his purrs made the decks quiver.
And all was right with the world after that.


***

Last night we watched 'Kramer Vs Kramer' a film I had long heard about but never seen. It was made in 1979, and it was a revelation as to how uncluttered and un-footery the world was at that time. No mobiles, no computers. Phones attached to cords. Letters. Books and newspapers. 10x8 colour transparencies (!), hand-drawn art roughs, you name it, and it had it in spades.
Aside from being a fantastic cultural shock (there was a can of Coke Tab, on a table . . .remember Tab?) it was also a brilliant film and not at all how I imagined it to be.
It was forthright and powerful with some truly excellent acting and a great story.
It was a real kicker in terms of defining memory - yes I can remember that year, but details? Well, details are an interesting point . . .
Anyway, I loved the feeling and rather like my 'Time Traveller's Wife' blog, the film moved me in a rather specific way. It took me back to '79. A key year in my life.
Actually, I don't need much prodding - the year is etched in me in such a way that my feelings about it aren't very far from the surface.
This posting is all the more poignant, because my son has recently turned 17, which is how old I was when the following occured.
Was I really as young as he seems?  
Really?
I am not sure how he would cope with a similar situation.


***


It seems strangely narcissistic to open oneself up this way and bare a piece of the dark inner-earth of one's soul to the daylight gaze of a cold world, but sometimes stories need to be told and this one just fell out.
Why post something like this? I don't know, I really don't, as usual, I started the week wondering what the heck I should write about and this just came to mind.
Is it cathartic? I am not sure actually.
I am (as far as I am aware) not in need of any catharticism, but in the manner of a lot of the posts on FB, a seed is planted and I start typing and an end result is achieved via a long and circuitous route.
I am not sure what my Mum and Dad would make of me publishing something like this for all and sundry to see. I hope they would understand.
It is a sad wee tale of a teenager trying to find a place in life against the odds, but in time I overcame my sadness for the events of that year and moved on, and now more often than not, I'll find myself smiling about that all too brief period of time.
My Mum in her later life, had a great antidote for everything. She laughed. And the older I get, the more I realise the wisdom of this.
I was lucky with my parents. No angst or alarms, no trouble or ill-will; just a home filled with the love of two people in love.
This is for them anyway.



Mum and Dad - Summer 1975
And yes, that chair my Dad was sitting on was somewhat of a family joke.



Right. Here goes.
1979 was a massive year for me.
The main event (if you can call it that) was my Dad dying from cancer.
It was a grisly death actually: the hollowing out of a man who had always been fit and healthy despite the rolly-up fags stuffed with Old Holborn. He'd always been a busy man, always on the go, damn, he'd even taught PE during his brief tenure in the Forces, so he was pretty fit, but as everyone knows smoking is a terrible thing - it usually catches up with you somehow and it did in a terrible way.
He, like most people his age, had smoked from his early teens - he even used the turnups on his trousers as makeshift ashtrays . . that's how ingrained it was.
But I hated it; travelling the 365 miles from London to Scotland for holidays was truly awful - it was like being in a tin can pub, the air thick with the blue haze of serial Benson & Hedges Gold, which were his choice on trips (so he didn't have to roll any). I could and did withstand the Old Holborn, but the B&H were just disgusting - they left me feeling sick and exhausted, and even an open window couldn't shift them.
Smoke suffused my life.
Dad with his roll-ups, my sister with her Gitanes, my sister-in-law with hers, our friends Trevor and Olive with theirs, even Steve's Dad smoked cigars!
But in the end, it was only Dad that got cancer.
It was in three places: firstly his lungs, secondly his liver, and thirdly his bloodstream. The latter is rather wonderfully described as Metastatic Cancer and it basically means that parts of a tumor can break away and travel either through the lymphatic system or the bloodstream to other parts of the body.
Really, to put it another way, it's a fully loaded Colt .45 sitting in your hand, waiting . . .
I saw him fail and shrivel and hold back the real story about the pain, but you could read it in his eyes and the way he seemed to shrink before our eyes.
Yes, for all of us a big time; no two ways about it.


***

But let me preface all this with a little bit of history.
We'd moved to Scotland in 1977; Mum and Dad had retired and I was still in school, so we headed North to the place we had originally bought as a holiday home in 1967 (for the grand sum of £150!).
I went into Fifth year at Lockerbie Academy on anticipation of my exam results from the school I had been at in Harrow and all (for a tiny period of time) was right with the world! However, unfortunately for me, it came to pass when I opened said results envelope, I discovered I had managed to achieve the heady heights of 7 unclassified results.
To those of you less aux faix with the English educational system, this was lower than an F mark, and basically it meant that I had failed to make any mark on the exam process whatsoever. To all intents and purposes, I was, to put it bluntly, officially and unequivocally, THICK.
Yes, that is THICK with a Capital T, in bold, and maybe even italicised too . . .oh, and fire-engine red  . . there . . . THICK!
During my short tenure in Fifth year, I tried against all odds  to make friends - I was the only English kid in a Scottish school in the 1970's - it was bloody difficult. I knew no one, but I tried and it was slowly starting to happen. But then my results arrived, the axe fell, and I was whisked back quicker than you can say "Jack Robinson" into Fourth year.
I had to try and go through the whole process again, but things had changed overnight.
Why would the kids in Fifth year now be interested in a lowly Fourth year?
To be honest, I sort of got along, but I was actually known as the 'English Bastard'; and that is no disservice to those Lockerbie Academy kids, they were just being how they were - Scotland was a vastly different nation then.
(Nowadays I would say that as a nation, Auld Alba has become diluted by incomers and slowly the dreams of generations of English Kings has come true. The land is theirs. Their dead bones can now rest easy)
But back to Lockerbie - the kids who befriended me were actually a pretty savvy bunch, but they had no interest in furthering their education. They saw life clearly and wanted money, so at the end of Fourth year off they went to become mechanics, farmers, you name it.
I'll never know why they befriended me - maybe they saw something in my shame, but then again, maybe they were just being that beautiful thing - Scottish! Welcome without question (mostly), hospitality in spades, but ever a canny eye on the treachery of houseguests (see the story of Glencoe for this). As I say, it was a very different world.
Actually, in reality a number of the Lockerbie kids with my interests (art and music!) became friendly with me too (thank you Paul and Alan Currie) however after a school day, travelling home at night on the Moffat bus, I felt castigated and so just immersed myself in my own world of music and dreaming. The children from Wamphray really didn't like English people, and the Moffat kids . . . did they think they were better than me? Yes I believe so, but to counter that you have to realise that they had all known each other from the year dot, so it was an impossible circle to break into. I also had a big placard with ENGLISH & THICK! on it. Invisible except to those who knew my shame, which was pretty much everyone.
Anyway, it didn't kill me and in the summer 1978, a lot of them left and it was back to making mostly new friends again.
I got a summer job that year courtesy of my Dad, with the Forestry Commission, spraying weeds and general work. It paid really well and despite the difficulties of being a 16/17 year old lad having to work with a bunch of really down to earth Men ** for a Summer, I think it helped me with what was to come.
I grew on those hillsides and on those long Land Rover journeys to the middle of nowhere.
I had to come out of my shell because if I hadn't I would have foundered, and I wasn't going to let that happen . . I had a HiFi system to save up for!
I finished the Summer better off, stronger and thinner, and with my new found confidence it was easier at the start of 'new' Fifth year.
Lockerbie Academy in common with many rural schools had kids bused in from surrounding areas (a lot from Langholm, some from other areas) and it was with this new intake in that new Autumn term of 1978 that I bonded. I think they felt they were outsiders like me.
So I'll raise a fully-charged thunderjug and a big thank you to Mark Boyde, Dave Ainslie, Derek Irving and Charles Armstrong-Wilson.
We had a lot of laughs.
I would also like to thank my friend Steve, who must have been scunnered with the weekly, loooong letters I used to write to him detailing school . . sorry mate.
Anyway, the future was set, and Mum and Dad and I thought it would be a good idea for me to go to college, and in particular Art College as that was my main interest, so I started working towards it. Things crept ahead. Life was enjoyable.
Winter of 1978 was a happy time. Our little cottage bedded itself down as it had for the previous 200 or so years; days got shorter; meteors rained down on the clear vista of sky I could see from my bedroom; frosts penetrated deeply and a lot of snow fell. But the cottage was cosy, and we got through with warmth and happiness and a great deal of love.
I started working in earnest for my Highers. The (self-imposed) pressure was on.
Dad and I (though we had always been close) became closer.
If I close my eyes now, God how I wish I had realised how little time was left, but who can read the future? You cannot tell what is coming.
Some brief memories:
Snowball Fights.
Walks through the fields in the bitter air.
Cookie (our cat) repeatedly singeing her tail on the flue of our multi-fuel boiler.
Trying to get our rear wheel drive Vauxhall Viva through 5 inches of snow up the steep hill to the A74 so that we could get some shopping.
Laughter.
Evenings at Trevor and Olives.
A trip to Leadhills at night to deliver Aunty Jane back to her cottage in Symington Street - a journey fraught with danger: frozen roads, diamond reflections, massive snow drifts and steep drops at the side of the road.
My Mum in the kitchen, with Dad and I waiting in anticipation for some hot freshly-buttered Welsh cakes.
Endless trips to Moffat Library.
These are very powerful memories to me - the air is thick around me now (as I type this) with their tangibility.
Then, in Easter 1979 it happened.
Dad had a car accident whilst he was voluntarily helping out on a milkround for a local dairy and that was really the start of everything.
My theory (unproven) is that the accident jarred the Cancer into virulent life.
From being diagnosed as having had a heart attack not long after Easter (because of pain) it was roughly three short months of shrivelling and pain and the shocked realisation that everything was changing until he died. I was in the process of sitting my Highers.
Thinking back, I have no idea how I managed to get any, but I did.
My life became a round of empathy from the children who had previously been standoffish. Teachers looked sadly at me. My registration teacher had moist eyes. I wonder if it finally hit home that I wasn't just an incomer, I was like them, trying to get through school with a modicum of dignity.
And then term ended, and I went to London to work on the Michelin Guide for the Summer (yes really the famous red-covered Michelin Restaurant and Hotel Guide).
I've often kicked  myself that I didn't stay. Mum and I could have mourned together, but it was not to be. She felt it would be better for me to earn some money, so I went South to stay with my brother and sister.
Gosh I wish I had stayed.
I returned to find Mum a fiercely independent woman, but an incomplete woman.
Half of her had gone and she was trying hard to put a brave face on the hole in her heart.
She laboured on at our lovely old cottage, and we lived a sad but vastly supportive existence with each other until the summer of 1980 when I went to London to work again for the summer and then left for college in the Autumn.
She tried her best, but it was hard for her and slowly, loneliness and the heavy impracticality of living on her own in the middle of nowhere got to her, and she moved to Lincolnshire.
And with her moving, my home was gone forever.
I've never really thought it about it this way before, but I think I mourned that almost as much as I did my poor dead Father, and I don't mean that in a callous way. Dad understood.
Our cottage had as powerful a hold on his heart and soul as it had on mine.


***


But what has all this got to do with the ever present theme of FB - Photography?
I had never thought about it before, but somewhere deep in my memory, I can recall making some self-portraits on a Polaroid camera which I had been given for my 13th birthday and had never really used because the main thrust of my thoughts at this time were music, both listening to it and making it. I wish I still had the portraits now, but I believe them to have been lost when my Mum's house was cleared. In my mind's eye they are telling photographs of a difficult time. But then again maybe they were just rubbish . . .
Self portraiture is a weird thing - I believe that every photographer has made at least one. Some of them are very good but most of them tend to be ordinary. Whichever they are, they are important because that slice of you in time will never be the same again.
But as I said, I cannot find the self-portraits, and the thought of a more modern self-portrait would be far too narcissistic, so instead I have opted for a couple of different portraits - creatures in difficult circumstances.






Ilford Galerie, Grade 2
Winter Kill Number 14
Printed on Ilford Galerie, Grade 2. Selenium toned.


It is never easy viewing images on the web, so here is a  760 DPi section.
This would be a decent size for an exhibition print.
As you can see, the level of detail (and I am not talking sharpness - you can see the camera shake) goes on and on. ***
Ilford Galerie is currently the finest Fibre-based paper you can buy (in my opinion)



This poor young deer is a sometimes common site when you are out in the glens around here. Basically what happens is when the snows arrive everything gets covered to a great depth. The deer (and they are plentiful) are unable to see their footing and can, as happened here, get caught in the snow-cloaked fences. Unable to extricate themselves they soon become exhausted and Winter claims another victim.
It must be an awful death.
I stood rather amazed in the low light of dawn when I came across this. I asked permission, made my photograph, and wished the creatures spirit well.
It was made on my Minolta Autocord (a 1958 export model) and was Fomapan Action 400 at EI 200 developed in Barry Thornton's 2 bath.
It is a sad photograph to me. The deer is a victim of terrible circumstances. it was not able to survive the rigours that life threw at it. Poor thing.
On the other hand, the photograph below, shows fortitude and stamina in difficult conditions.




Forte Polywarmtone, Grade 2
Mountain Pony
Printed on the lamented Forte Polywarmtone. Grade 2. Selenium toned.
Unfortunately my scanner has imparted a pinkish tinge to it.



It is never easy viewing images on the web, so here is a  760 DPi section.
This would be a decent size for an exhibition print.
As you can see, the level of detail (and I am not talking sharpness) goes on and on. ***
A quality paper - much missed.



These mountain ponies are probably long gone now as the photograph was made about 8 years ago. They are tough creatures, used in areas of the Mounth Plateau in Angus where Land Rovers can't go. I think they are rather beautiful, but there is a friendly aloofness about them. Yes they'll come up and nuzzle you, but you can also see they are thinking 'A human . . how pathetic!'
The day I made this photograph was extremely damp indeed, and very cold with it. A dreary mist kept coming in, bringing rain and a bitter wind. I was in two minds to continue walking actually, but I did anyway.
The camera was good old Oly The Rollei, film was HP5  at EI 200, developed in 1:2 Perceptol, for 13mins at 24C. A great combination. Perceptol and HP5 go together like you and me.
The pony was soggy in the cold, but as you can see, it held its head high in that curiously noble way equine creatures have.
I asked its permission, made its portrait, and thought no more of it till it was developed and printed.
It is my wife's favourite photograph of all the thousands I have made.
This beautiful animals lifting of itself above adversity makes me think of one of my favourite quotations:
"No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man." 
It is often quoted as being of Far Eastern origin, however it belongs to a Greek: Heraclitus (Ἡράκλειτος). Born in Ephasus in 535BC.
Apparently the actual quote is:
"You could not step twice into the same river; for other waters are ever flowing on to you."
It is known as Fragment 41, and was quoted by Plato in Cratylus
One of  Heraclitus' other quotes I rather like too:
"Good character is not formed in a week or a month. It is created little by little, day by day. Protracted and patient effort is needed to develop good character."
And such it was for me in that momentous year of 1979.
I am not sure whether I have a 'good character' or not, all I can say is that that terrible time has laid a deep foundation within me.
As the saying goes, whatever doesn't kill us makes us strong.
Moments in life like the death of a parent can be an awful shock to the system, they take time (in my case years) to work their way through your internal workings, but one day you find yourself with a smile on your face thinking about something they did or said and your heart is no longer heavy.
Death is always worse for those left behind.
For myself, I wish I had been able to experience my Dad's wry humour and sage wisdom and advice as an adult.
But who knows, maybe one day . . .
As usual, God bless and thanks for reading.





** Real MEN. Workers, Drinkers, wirey and wizened by weather and outdoor work. They were a hard bunch.
They called me 'The Pauchler' because they believed I emptied some of my spraying chemicals out before climbing a hillside . . not true . . . I had the muscles to prove it.

*** You will not get this level of detail or smoothness of tonal transition from an inkjet or a resin-coated print. The emulsion on a fine quality enlarging paper is an incredible surface - it seems so at odds with today, and yet I believe that the fine print made on high quality paper will continue to be made, simply because it is the zenith of the craft.
I stand by my statement that Ilford's Graded Galerie is the finest paper made today.

Monday, January 21, 2013

The Black Hit Of Space

Mornin' Varmints - well, what a snooze that was!
Ar yes m'dearios. Me and Mog finished off 16 stone o' Turkey leftovers on Boxing Day, settled ourselves down for some well-earned shuteye and the next thing we knew it was the 4th o' January!
"Well," I said to Mog -"Happy New Year to you, old friend."
"Happy New Year Cap'n," he said back.
That's weird I thought, he couldn't talk before we went to sleep.
I did wonder whether it were something we ate that was affecting me hearing, so I asked him,
"When was ye born me old soak?"
and he said,
"That's no' clear to me Cap'n. I can only remember the sack and the water."
And I thought, that's good enough for me. If it were my ears playing me up, he would have said something like the 24th o' May.
So I believes him.
Imagine that.
A talking cat.
I'm not going to let too many folk know though - there's a ton of people would pay a pretty penny to own one.


***


Been out all night, I needed a bite
I thought I'd put a record on
I reached for the one with the ultra-modern label
And wondered where the light had gone
It had a futuristic cover
Lifted straight from Buck Rogers
The record was so black it had to be a con
The autochanger switched as I filled my sandwich
And futuristic sounds warbled off and on

(The Human League - The Black Hit Of Space)



***


This week I genuinely wasn't going to write anything - call it Post Festive Disorder (PFD) - I didn't get half what I expected done, but I did have a fantastic time, which resulted in me indulging in one of my favourite pastimes ... reading. Lots.
Anyway, I got to Thursday morning this week and a little demon appeared on my shoulder and said 'You know, they're waiting . . .', so I thought Och bugger it and started. So this week's FB will be a little less heavy on the writing being as I've only had a couple of days to get it together - my apologies, but, given my subject matter it seems very pointless to regurgitate potted histories as the world is littered with them . . so here goes.
There's a dirty word still bandied around photographic circles.
It's pretty seedy and in fact, even though (and despite) the fact that it gets mentioned more now that it has been in the past hundred or so years, it's still a bit iffy. 
People get uncomfortable.
They stretch their collars, shuffle their feet and cough.
It is an unmentionable.
However, for myself I will stride into the arena, wearing my frock coat and winged collar, pommandered hair set nice and solid, moustache waxed to perfection and say, to me, there's never been a movement like it.
It was born from passion and enthusiasm and ideas of lofty artisticness way above its station.
It lived briefly like a Mayfly, wings glittering above the fast running waters of life in a dance of beauty, and then committed suicide. 
And when this tradgedy was all but enacted? What happened then? Why, its corpse was buried in a pauper's grave and its memory trampled and left to be picked over by dogs.
Sounds melodramatic eh? Well it sort of was like that.
And to what do I refer?
Brown paper bag ready?
Pictorialism!
Ah the Gods - PICTORIALISM!



Banner For The Photo-Secession


The greatest, most profound and beautiful photographic movement there ever was.
Lambasted, criticised, cynicised, ignored, Pictorialism stands large in the history of photography as a beautiful jewel.
Strangely I would say these days that is it arguably more important than Ansel Adams and Group f64. How's that for radicalism.
All of your realist movements of the 60's? As nothing.
All the shite that passes for 'art' photogaphy these days? Total bollocks.
You see, somehow, it has transcended its lowly grave and ascended to the heights.
Pictorialism, [which I am sure would be to the surprise of Mr.Alfred Steiglitz (its driver and mentor)] has become something other. As a movement I feel that there has never been another as profound or influential.
You see friends today, Pictorialism is all around us.
It's in films, on television, on posters and in magazines.
It influences and drives like never before, partly I believe because it saw the way naturalistically.
Think about it, and the world isn't really hard-edged at all. Centrally to your eyes it is, but the periphery? Blurred. And that blurriness and softening of image in the majority of Pictorialist photographs is incredibly naturalistic.
I think it is almost why the images speak so well.
Yes a lot of it was done to mimic 'painterly' techniques, but when photographers are already dealing with absolute realism, why not try and show it in a way that could be considered more 'arty'.
The Pictorialists were working with uncoated lenses, and there is a tendency nowadays to believe that lenses from that time (late 19th early 20th Century) were somehow not very good and soft.
This is a misconception.
Most of the greatest leaps in lens design happened in those times.
Ancient lenses can be softer, however they can also be as crisp as you like. There are incredibly wide variations in them, however Pictorialists, semi-eschewed the standard ones in favour of 'portrait' lenses (so called because they were able to soften an image to make it look softer. It was never good as a working photographer to have your customer's blemished skin shining out of a photograph) which when turned to landscape and still life and figurely photographs rendered things deliciously soft.
Pictorial pictures mostly exhibit a beautiful depth too, which somehow, to my mind, sends them over the edge from being a photograph. They are so very natural looking, possibly because my eyesight isn't what it was, but maybe that naturalness is apparent because of their lack of definition. Its the reason I suppose why all hard-edged CGI images in films look somehow so wrong, and why ordinary non-super-imposed filmwork looks so right.
Soft images are laughed at today, they are.
They are seen as being 'Romantic' in a brutal world, but to this I say what is wrong with Romanticism?
God knows the world is difficult enough - if a photograph can touch your soul because it is soft and ethereal looking then all the better.
Of course I am tarring every Pictorialist there ever was with the 'romantic soft image' brush - it was in reality a little like this, but then on the other hand you have Steiglitz's 'The Steerage' - as modern as you like. And of course, the nail in the coffin, Paul Strand's disturbing and harsh and beautiful 'Blind Woman - New York 1916', published in 'Camera Work' the journal of the Pictorialists and as loud as any death knell you could wish to hear.
I could go over this forever, however it is digressing from Pictorialism.
I won't write a potted history of it - pointless - there's loads of stuff on the web.
What I will say is that it repays studying. In spades.
From Clarence White to Paul Strand, from Annie Brigman to Edward Steichen and Frederick Evans - names that have greatness hewn into them.
To be honest I could have chosen twenty images to illustrate this, however I will just go with one which I believe to be the greatest . . but then that's just me.
Clarence White's 'The Orchard 1905' could have been top (it is an image laced with meaning drawn deep from Christian spirituality, and for all its carefree appearence, it is as set-up as a photograph could be) however it isn't.




Clarence White - The Orchard, 1905




To my mind the finest thing ever published in Camera Work, and that is a tall order, is something so old it is modern. It is so poetic, it is a script waiting to happen. Like all great photographs, it tells a story, and can also inspire a story in your head.
Are you sitting down?
Probably my favourite photograph ever is by a man called Mr.George Henry Seeley.
It is called 'The Firefly'. 




George Henry Seeley - The Firefly, 1907




It was made in 1907.
I love this photograph.
It is about as perfect as a photograph can get.
Yes it is soft focus. Oh God isn't it beautiful?
Compositionally, I don't think you could do better actually.
The curve of the bowl leads your eye in.
The woman (his sister I believe) is beautiful in a timeless way.
She could be from now.
She could be from the Dark Ages.
She has the headpiece as a prop, but again, date it . .
And there, she is holding a firefly, its tiny light like a jewel in her hand. The flare from the uncoated lens aids the whole feel of melancholia and age. It exudes carefulness in its composition, but also an instantaneousness, like she has run up to the camera and is saying 'See, brother, see what I have found!'
It is also as modern a photograph as you could ever want to find. I think it actually sets the bar. 
Can you imagine photographs like this in Vogue? I can.
If you are at all interested in looking at more images, then, if you can find it, the Taschen publication 'Camera Work - The Complete Illustrations 1903-1917 [ISBN 3-8228-8072-8]' is to be highly recommended.
If you can find the hardback (for less than the price of a car) all the better as the paperbacks have a tendency to split, due to their massive bulk!
Anyway, from beauty it is a trip back to earth, with an image that is no less profoundly moving, but very different.




Paul Strand - Blind Woman, New York 1916



From the last issue of Camera Work
This was really the loud clanging of the death knell. 
Steiglitz I believe realised that the end was nigh - you can't stand in the way of progress - and yet what an image to sign that warrant. 
Curiously, it is as obvious an analogy with regard to the golden, pre-WWI years and the sound of mechanised death from the Front as you could wish.
On one hand, beauty, etherealism and softness, and on the other, grim reality, indignity and the vision of a world changed forever.
In it's brief 14 year life Camera Work gave more to the world than the world gave to it.
For myself I find it as profoundly influential as I always have done.
If you wish to read further, just Google things like 'Camera Work, Photo Secession, Alfred Steiglitz, Pictorialism. The images really will work their way into your psyche. I think they can help to make better photographers of us all.


***


As usual with FB, I thought I had better do some shameless shoe-horning in of photography - so here's my pathetic attempt at emulating a Pictorialist style, with a Twin Lens Reflex!





The Woman In The Boughs




I actually am rather fond of this photograph, for a start it is my wife, so that is the best place to start.
It was made with my beloved Rolleiflex T and I was using a Rolleinar close-up set, with the focus somewhere between 10 feet and 30 feet, so totally out of focus.
Not a lot of people know that with the Rolleinars on a Rollei you can have a very subtly variable soft focus lens - at infinity things get more definition, but in the close range they are wonderfully soft, as you are using the natural lack of depth of focus you get with close-focus devices. I daresay any close-up lens used on a camera for a use that isn't a close-up would work, but the Rolleinars are something else optically.
Film was FP4 at EI 80 developed in Barry Thornton's 2 bath. The print was made on Grade 2 Ilford Galerie (my favourite paper) and it was archivally processed and then toned in Agfa Viradon for that vintage look.
We'd watched the film  'Possession' not long before that and the name of the photograph just sprang into my mind, inspired by that film.
Anyway, nuff z nuff. That's me, over and oot.
As usual, take care, God bless, and thanks for reading.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Sometimes You Eat The Bear (Anatomy Of A Printing Session)

Har Har me Hearties - what a week it has been.
Mog's new-found talking ability has proved itself rather amusing, particularly now that some of the lads have been teachin' him to swear. Not only that, but he's become a gifted impersonator; and I would say now aboard the Good Shippe FB, you cannot reliably rely on anything you hear, especially when you can't see the person that is talking.
We also had a rather amusing time with Mr.Sheephouse.
I don't know where he got them from, but my second mate got a haul of very small bear costumes. I presume these were intended for some sort of children's activity in the Russias (as that is where they were bound before he purloined them), anyway, a bit of snipping and sewing and before you know it we had a cat-sized bear outfit.
It was très amusing to see Mog wandering around like a small cub pretending to be tough.
It was even more amusing when we locked him down below with Sheephouse in his room of dark arcanery. Oh yes, much was the swearing that came out o' that room with us all gathered outside the door sniggering away.
To be truthful, it was almost impossible to tell who's voice was who's.
I think Mog learned more swear words that day than he would in a whole month o' bein' below decks.
That cat, he's got Sheephouse down to a T.


***


I love printing photographs - I've said it before and I'll say it again - it is entirely half of my photographic life and one which these days seems to be largely ignored by the majority of photographers . . .but that's another soapbox.
It was Sunday and it was sleety/rainy. I had been wanting to take my Wista out, but the thought of those lovely silk-lined bellows in the rain isn't very appealing . .neither is the thick dew of condensation on a groundglass on days like this .  . so printing it was. I started at 11AM and finished at 3.30PM with a 20 minute break for lunch.
Negatives were all made with my nice old 50mm Elmar, however there were a couple of variables. Firstly the camera. My initial bunch were made on the IIIf which I sent back. The second lot were made on an M2 which I haven't sent back (though it does have a 1/15th sneeze). What I haven't seen written before is that the film gates of both cameras are different! The IIIf is exactly 37mm x 24mm; the M2 is the standard 36mm x 24mm . . . strange but true. This caused some confusion halfway through the session, but it was sorted quickly. The other variables were film (Ilford Delta 400 and Kodak TMX 400) and dilutions of Kodak HC 110 developer (Dilutions G and B). The final variable if you can call it that was a Leitz FISON lens hood I bought to protect the Elmar (more about this in a later blog).
Anyway, as the title of this blog implies . . sometimes things go right, and sometimes they don't. Today I had a number of bad things happen, but managed to make some prints I am more than happy with. I count it a good session if I can make 6 to 8 prints, and if say 3 of those are useable as proper archive prints then all the better.



The Maw Of Hell

Could Have Done With A Tidy-Up

The DeVere just fits

Wet Area (and sensibly placed 'Dry' cabinet)

Emergency Supplies.
The trays are on the floor to catch drips from the current printing session's drying prints - normally they aren't there.


Prints Drying.



As you can see, my darkroom is extremely primitive. It is an old butler's cupboard under a stair - it does have quite a high ceiling at one side, and does have the advantage of a stone flagged floor, which is fine for spillages of chemicals and also keeps beer at near perfect pub temperature! 
My enlarger is a DeVere 504 Dichromat - you can see it mounted on an old kitchen cabinet which is on its side - I have to print on my knees - I call it supplication to the Gods Of Printing.
All my wet processing is done in trays on newspapers on those shelves to the right - they are 9 inches deep - just enough for a tray.
The old hifi cabinet underneath is my dry area - all paper is stored in there, and there is an old Restem paper safe on a shelf too.
Yes that is a wine rack! The green towel is my door jamb for when I am processing LF film - basically it is a towel rolled up, with cable ties holding it in a roll and goes up against a large gap under the cupboard door.
There's no running water, so prints get popped into my Paterson washer until the end.
The prints are hanging from an old indoors washing line that came with the house!
They say that necessity is the mother of invention - in my case it has been poverty - I scrimped this lot together over years and would love to have a 'proper' darkroom with all mod cons.
For all its primitiveness, I can print to exhibition standards, and I am not bumming myself up there. I care about my prints.
They are carefully made and of a high quality. The only thing I lack is a dry mounting press ( and seriously if you have one you don't want, let me know!)
Actually, I am sure that any of us making prints the old-fashioned way these days, and willing to invest the time and money into learning printing, are good enough at what we do to make them to exhibition standard.
The lens was a nice old (Pentax made) 50mm f2.8 Durst Neonon, which I kept at f5.6 for the entire session. Chemicals were Kodak Polymax developer, Kodak stop bath, and home-made plain fix, which I used as a double bath. I have run out of selenium or else I would have toned them. They were washed for a couple of hours in my creaky old Paterson Archival Washer. Seeing as the plain fix is essentially an alkali fix, washing is a lot shorter than for acid fixers, and also I don't need to use hypo-clear.
Oh and I don't split grade print - I never found it of use to my practice, but again that's just me.
I was going to use my old favourite of Ilford Galerie, however because half the negatives were developed in HC 110 Dilution G and are (because of the fact that the Elmar is ancient and uncoated) very low in contrast, I chose to use some Adox Vario Classic fibre-based which I had kicking around. It is a very nice paper - the only things I don't like about it are its gloss, which isn't as rich as it could be, and the fact it will cockle around the edges when air-dried.
To be honest I am not a fan of resin-coated paper - I don't know, there's just something about the image quality, which, to be honest doesn't quite have the sharpness of a good fibre print. Anyway, that's just me. Fibre takes longer to print and is more fussy of correct fixing, but I feel the effort to be worth it.
Anyway, time to strap your helmet on and join me in the cavalcade of laughter, triumph and tears!
First up is an image I rather like - it is hard to tell what is going on, but you know the place is 'Open'.
Being none too familiar with the Adox paper I felt it best to sacrifice a sheet to the God Of Test Strips. I don't always make them, but sometimes, and especially when you are using a new camera/film/developer combo, they are handy as they help to get your eye use to the paper's properties and how your negative will look printed . . often never how you imagine it to be! I can usually get about 12 smaller strips out of one sheet of 8x10" paper - I know the general idea is to make a large strip, but to be honest, I would rather preserve the paper, so small strips it is.
The long lamented greatest paper ever was Forte, and they actually provided you with some test strips pre-cut, which I thought was very nice. But alas nobody thinks like that anymore, so you have to waste a sheet . .
Bear in mind that a box of 100 sheets of fibre-based  8x10" paper is approximately £70+ these days and you have 70p down the swanny just like that . . .
I set up my easel, got the image placement right, focused, stopped down and made a test. This was developed, and I came to my decision of exposure time. I then checked the focus again, and made the exposure. (By the way, if you made the test strip in say four second segments, you need to expose your print in four second segments, not for the whole exposure all at once. This is because the intermittency effect will come in and effectively give you a greater exposure and hence a darker print.)
Oh and I am assuming from this that you might have made some prints, and therefore don't need the very basics going over . . .
Also I will pre-empt everything by saying ignore the ripple effect on the scans! This is because the prints have dried cockled (anyone got a dry mounting press they don't want???) and I have scanned them warts and all. Secondly, I wanted to include little thumbnails of test strips, but Blogger software is hopeless when it comes to aligning pictures, so I gave up.
Anyway, warts and all, here it is.



Adox Vario Classic - Grade 4.
Print 1 - Adox Vario Classic - Grade 4.
Leica IIIf, 50mm Uncoated Elmar, Ilford Delta 400, HC110 Dilution G.





I like the print I made here - it works and is a bit mysterious and dreamy . . though, judging it afterward, there were two white speck marks, so I obviously didn't clean the negative as well as I should have. Also, notice the presence of the bear in the way that the margin on the right hand side is smaller than the left . . yep, forgot to check that one!
Selenium would bring up the blacks beautifully, so I should get some more . . nearly £25 a bottle though . . . but at least if you do decide you want to tone a print, you can go back, soak the print and follow a correct toning sequence . . very handy.
Anyway, onwards, I corrected the margin, gave the bear a kick and continued.
Whilst I had the same sheet of negatives out, I thought I would print the following. I made a test, and judged the exposure.



Adox Vario Classic - Grade 3
Print 2 - Adox Vario Classic - Grade 3.
Leica IIIf, 50mm Uncoated Elmar, Ilford Delta 400, HC110 Dilution G.



And as you can see, the result is shite. The first of the day's mistakes. Contrast is poor,  exposure is poor, and here's the kicker, I must have not focused properly on the easel, because the image appears to be out of focus too. Och well, another 70p down the drain . . . .

A brief aside into focus finders:
I have 3! A Scoponet, a basic Peak and a Magnasight.
The Peak is my favourite, however it had fungus when I bought it, so I had to dismantle it, which necessitated a fair bit of plastic gouging . . and of course you can't reassemble from there, so it works of a fashion. Because I can't set it permanently, I have to constantly re-adjust, and the bear loves a good twiddle . . .
The Scoponet isn't a patch on the optical clarity of the Peak, but does in an emergency (I used it for years).
The Magnasight I bought new from the States and have used it about twice, because I just couldn't get on with it .  . anyone want to buy it??

Back to the Session . . .

I was annoyed, and that isn't a good frame of mind to be in for printing, so I prepped my next negative. By the way, blowers? Anti-static guns? Nope, I run a 35mm negative through the fleshy parts of thumb and where it buts up against the index finger, or sometimes I'll run it between my index and middle finger.
It works.
I use a cobbled glass carrier in the DeVere (using Meopta 6x9 glass carriers taped to the DeVere's lower glass carrier), and any dust that falls on there gets swiped off with the back of my hand. I used to use an anti-static brush, but I find this method a whole lot more less problematical.
I made a test strip and decided to up the contrast a bit and judged the exposure roughly based on that. The Adox paper offers remarkably similar exposure times for different grades, which is a nice quality.
Unfortunately for me, I didn't see that the bear was getting ready to lend a helping hand again.



Adox Vario Classic - Grade 3
Disaster Strikes!
Print 3 - Adox Vario Classic - Grade 3.
Leica IIIf, 50mm Uncoated Elmar, Ilford Delta 400, HC110 Dilution G.



Nice print, nice contrast, but look - it is squint! My excuse (another one) - my ancient and battered Beard easel has little alumininium strips which act as stops for the paper you are about to expose. Unfortunately, the design is such that paper can slip underneath them all too easily, which is what happened here. Moral of the story, check and double check everything . . even something as basic as fitting a piece of paper into an easel.
Being annoyed by the presence of the bear, I looked at the print again and decided that my contrast wasn't enough, so I went the whole hog and dialled in a mighty 200 units of Magenta (effectively a Grade 4+) and made another print.




Adox Vario Classic - Grade 4+
Print 4 - Adox Vario Classic - Grade 4+ (200 Magenta)
Leica IIIf, 50mm Uncoated Elmar, Ilford Delta 400, HC110 Dilution G.


Ah, that's better.
I asked the bear to leave quietly and he did.
Calm returned and I could get on with my worship.
My next negative showed me the importance of ignoring what a scanned negative looks like. Scanning negatives is a nasty habit I have got into in recent years, and you know what - it is a hopeless way of judging what you have made. In my scan, the verticals are converging (slightly, but enough to make me think I shouldn't bother printing the negative - "Wot's that Doctor? Ee's got Convergin Verticals? Wot's 'at mean then? My poor son!"). However, I liked the image and thought I could correct the verticals by using tilt on the DeVere's focus stage, so I got a surprise when I looked at it on the baseboard and realised the verticals are correct and straight . . just the way I composed it!




Adox Vario Classic - Grade 3
Print 5 - Adox Vario Classic - Grade 3
Leica M2, 50mm Uncoated Elmar, FISON Hood, Kodak TMY 400, HC110 Dilution B.




The picture is of a hoarding outside a newsagents and is, how shall I say, a little 'Welcome to Dundee' for the V&A.
Yes that grey stuff is I don't know what, but it's pretty ghastly!
It is very typical of this lovely city of mine - on one hand you have knowledge and study and the arts, and on the other you have sublime ignorance and stupidity. Pretty much like any city really.
David' Bailey's picture of Twiggy is a great one, made all the merrier by a smear of 'stuff'.
The print turned out well I felt. The negative brought in the two extra variuables of the FISON hood and Dilution B.
Had I had more time, I would have done some selective bleaching of the white stuff with Ferricyanide, but I didn't . . maybe later.
I was feeling pretty good now - printing is supposed to be a pleasurable activity, but I fully understand how people can become frustrated and disillusioned.
Like anything good, effort is required, along with care and checking at every stage.
Feeling semi-triumphant and conscious of the clock, I thought I would round everything off with a strange image.
It was strange when I took it - I gambled on the camera exposure but got it right and the negative is dense enough for me to print at pretty much any tonality, which is great!



Adox Vario Classic - Grade 3
Print 6 - Adox Vario Classic - Grade 3.
Leica M2, 50mm Uncoated Elmar, FISON Hood, Kodak TMY 400, HC110 Dilution B. 


I printed this at Grade 3 just to boost the lower contrast of the Elmar, and I feel with the print I misjudged it and gave it a tad too much exposure. I would prefer a lighter tonality . . maybe next time.
It isn't a fine print, but it is a starting point.
And that's pretty much it actually. I would say it was a semi-successful session. Very enjoyable all the same.
The prints were washed for a couple of hours and then pegged back to back for an overnight air dry. I then flatten them between some heavy books and file away the ones I like best.
One thing . . on my last print, despite my feeling of triumph, the bear must have accompanied me whilst I was out photographing, as there is a small black mark at the top - obviously a bit of material like a fibre. This must be in the camera (it was . . I found it!), as it is black on the print and thus in permanence on the negative. Fortunately I have a Swann and Morton Number 15 scalpel blade and managed to gently 'knife' it out whilst the print was still wet. Yes it leaves a mark in the gloss finish, but you can sometimes touch that up carefully with spotting dye. At the end of the day, I have a few prints I am happy with and have filed away.
Sometimes you eat him. Sometimes, he eats you.
Printing is a dying craft (unfortunately) - I will continue to enjoy it until they no longer manufacture paper . . and I don't know what I'll do then . .
As usual, thanks for reading and God bless.


***

If you are interested, some of my personal recommendations for self-teaching materials:

I have read rather a lot of printing books over the years, and whilst I have enjoyed the likes of the more modern favourites like Rudman's 'Master Printing Course', and Ephraum's 'Creative Elements', I am going to come out and say the flat-out best printing book around is Ansel Adam's 'The Print'. It repays repeated reading. It is a masterwork, and it will teach you more than you really need to know. I will follow this with the late-lamented Barry Thornton's two books, 'Edge Of Darkness' and 'Elements'. 'Elements' has been out of print for a number of years but is now available as an e-book.
John Blakemore's 'Black and White Photography Workshop' is a masterclass in all aspects of monochrome photography with particular attention applied to the aesthetic aspects of print-making you don't find anywhere else.
My final recommendations were published by Ralph Gibson's Lustrum Press. They are called 'Darkroom', and 'Darkroom 2'. Both essential reading for the sheer breadth of practice by the contributing printers.
Ground yourself in these and you will be producing prints you are proud of in no time at all.
I would also be remiss not to mention Joseph McKenzie and his redoubtable technician Sandy, who taught me photography and printing at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art in the 1980's . . . you can't put a price on such a great grounding.



Friday, January 04, 2013

Rum, Sodomy & The Lash

             


" 'Said Captain.
I said Wot?
' Said Captain.
I said Wot?
' Said Captain.
I said Wot?
' Said Captain.
I said Wot You Want?"


***



Sometimes you have to suffer for your art, and, there's no way round this, darkroom work is one of those times. It does really seem ridiculous to me that these days, the key thing that defines you as a photographer (your images) is usually parcelled out to software and a machine. It is sort of like a music box. All of the right notes in all the right places, clearly defined, nothing left to chance, with each little tine being pinged at the correct time. Yes it is music. But it isn't music.
A musician (well a decent musician) can coax an unwilling lump of wood or metal into warm, organic life with a depth of feeling you wouldn't believe possible. A simple vibrato on a note can bring a full grown male human to a quivering blubbing lump. I think this is because music is such an intrinsic part of being human that we have an art form that can cut through all the insanity of modern life to the quick of what it is to be human.
I own a number of albums where the essence of organic musicianship has been distilled into something which is so heartfelt and deeply meaningful, that they seem to transcend the medium and become something other.
I am sure you've got a few like that too, but they are sort of rare aren't they?
Two I can point to with a definitive "That one" are by the Canadian artist Bruce Cockburn.
He's a funny sort is old Bruce. I must admit that although he has been going since the late 1960's/early 1970's there's been a certain patchiness; a patchiness which seems to have increased with time, but then again maybe he just changed . . .
So, I'll forgive him that, but will go back to 'High Winds, White Sky' and 'Sunwheel Dance' (his second and third albums respectively) and state that in them he has created two complete worlds.
Even (and especially) the covers work with the music to create a whole.
Obviously recommending music is a difficult thing . . one man's meat and all that, but if you have a penchant for British folk of the 1970's and like the thought of being tucked away in a cold Canadian Winter, then either of these albums does the trick completely.




The Cover to High Winds was taken at a place in Toronto called Ward Island. The photographer was George Pastic and somehow, the cover and the songs on the album fit like a hand in a glove. It even extends down to the whimsy of the enclosed booklet - Bruce on a bicycle; Bruce being mysterious in a river; hand-written lyrics - it's as near a total artistic statement as albums get.
And that is an important thing, because it is a statement of intent; a complete world, and you, buying the album (and thereby contributing to the artists's well-being) are being invited to purchase a seat to that world. For the asking price and a possible lifetime of pleasure, it was (and still is) a small price to pay.











The booklet was small and very beautiful.
It sets out with a purpose and achieves it.


Though not quite the same as a statement of intent, 'Sunwheel Dance' from 1970 (recorded in Toronto like its predecessor) has, if you let it get into you, such a feel of a lonely, homely cabin in the middle of nowhere, that you would never want to leave.



             




The cover photograph is by Bart Schoales and is as near dammit a perfect introduction to the themes of the album (light and spirituality).
The final track brings in outsiders to the cabin, visitors if you like (though the band has been present throughout the album, they have done what really good bands do, become transparent) and their singing in harmony is a thing of great wonder. It makes you feel so completely homely and comforted that you transcend the music. Your soul takes wings and moves and is moved in no uncertain ways. Well mine does anyway.
You see, certain pieces of art can transcend their weighty dimensional anchors and move you to places where spirit and feeling and consciousness combine.
You can get that with photographs too - there are images that bear multiple viewings, whereby the photographer has transcended all the dimensional realities of a piece of the world carefully chopped down to fit into a rectangular or square view of the world, and somehow managed to imbue the essence of their art into what you are viewing.
I could choose many actually, but two random examples are as follows:



Wynn Bullock - Tide Pool 1957





Walker Evans - Alabama Tenant Farmer's Wife


As you can see, they are utterly different, and yet I never tire of looking at either of them, simply because they speak to me.
So . . . remember at the top of the page before I started digressing, I was talking about darkroom work and how it was important?
Right, here we go.
It isn't just important, it is vital.
And why do I say that? Well, despite what the populists would have you believe, photography is a craft rather than an art.
It can be an art, definitely, but when you look back at its history and the great men and women who have made it their own, you are struck by one thing. Most of these people were craftsmen. 
They nearly all developed their own film.
They nearly all printed their own prints.
Most got their hands dirty (and stained, and suffered metol-fingernail) letting selenium and hypo and acetic acid and pyrogallol and metol and hydroquinone seep into their souls.
They laboured in dark places for our education of what it is to be human and in doing so managed to be able to transform the seemingly mundane into the everyday extraordinary.
That is craft.
They captured our intensely incredible, three dimensional world and rendered it into two dimensions.
And what dimensions.
They can take your soul and inspire.
They can make you weep and laugh and rage and crave change.
And they can change too, providing a voice, a proof of a world transformed or laid bare for all to see.
The seemingly humble photographic print is a powerful thing. it can change the world. It can change your life. It can be an exquisite object of love and labour. Tactile and beautiful; signed or unsigned, it is the distillation of photography, and as such should be treasured and revered, because you see print-making walks hand in hand with photography. 
It is as human an activity as making music.
Joseph McKenzie once said to me he thought I was lucky being a musician (which I sort of was) because of the immediacy of being able to create music. Were I able to speak to him now, I would say he was far luckier being a great photographer, because he was able to produce lasting works of extreme beauty and truth.
And that is why friends, I urge you. If you are at all interested in photography, you simply have to try and make photographic prints. It doesn't have to be a complex setup. I loaded film into daylight tanks in cupbards for years; I have contact printed 35mm negatives onto 6x4" resin coated paper. I have worked at the very most basic level of exposing paper with a torch and processing the paper in the dark because I couldn't afford a safelight, and what moved me to this madness? The love of the print.
I still operate on the same 'guerilla' basis; yes I now have a darkroom, but it is very rough and ready (and without any running water or sinks) however I can happily produce works of art that are entirely of my own creation, from making the photograph to developing to printing to archiving to writing notes on the back.
If you really want to achieve the beauty of the print, something that you are entirely in control of, then it can be done. It just requires a bit of thought.
I am not going to teach you how to make a print (there are many great texts online or on bookshop shelves that will do the trick), all I am going to say is that if you farm all your photographic effort out to the same software that everyone else uses and then let a machine spray ink onto paper and then say you have a print, then you are only half a photographer. There. That's me damned for ever!
Is it any wonder that most serious galleries these days still tend to poo-poo the inkjet?
I think they feel the same as me.
Yes it is an image, but no, it isn't a photograph **.
The following pictures, whilst poor scans are of prints.
The prints are properly processed and archivally stored.
They will outlast me, and you.
They are my wee attempts at rendering the world I see into something that hopefully moves the viewer in the same way I was moved when I made the images.
 They are entirely my own work from beginning to end.





Woods.
 Reverse of print with printing details

Woods.
Full frame negative.
Grade 2 Ilford Galerie
Kodak Polymax Developer
Archivally Fixed in 'Plain' Fix
Archivally washed
Untoned



A pleasant surprise
 flip the sleeve over and another print!


Silverprint Archival polyester sleeve.
These are great for long term storage.

I store my best prints in Silverprint Archival sleeves and then in Timecare Archival boxes. 
Yes it is expensive, but why not take the best care of what is, after all, a highly crafted product.
One day I might try and put on an exhibition - you never know.
Thanks for reading and God bless.


** I have no choice with regard to colour - it seems to have gone too far, but the monochrome print (my own concern) is as vital now as it ever was.