Saturday, 30 April 2011

Paul Graham ..............A shimmer of possibility..............haiku in photography

Paul Graham is currently showing at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. In a retrospective of his work several large rooms are filled with photographs made between 1981 and 2006. Starting with the beautiful "television portraits" , moving through   Europe, Japan and America , he  immerses himself in the landscapes and unconscious rituals of societies.


 As the gallery describes "The everyday scenarios he reflects are also embedded with a complex iconography. The hand that an immaculately made up Japanese girl waves across her mouth evokes a society anxiously over-invested in surfaces."

 Under a hot grey Pittsburgh sky, an African American gardener mows the grass verge of a car park, traversing back and forth, going nowhere. This is from one of the series in "A shimmer of possibility", which I found the most beautiful of his works. In this quiet series , which Graham describes as "filmic Haiku" , he finds beauty in everyday events as they unfold before his eyes. Here is man who finds beauty in the ordinary, but who is also able to point out the contrasts of those who have and those who have not.

The way that this series was presented was of particular interest to me; seven or so different sized images conveying the same scene from different perspectives and in different sizes, are displayed as a whole that conveys not only time passing,  but also person and place, in a poetic way that befits the term Haiku.

Also of interest was the series of bespoke books made to contain the series;

A shimmer of possibility , published by SteidlMACK

These are bound in brightly coloured cloth, each one a different colour. The volumes range between relatively extended passages of more than twenty photographs over sixty pages, to a book that cradles just one picture, a story with no beginning and no end.

David Chandler says of "A Shimmer of Possibility" on the Paul Graham archive

"Graham has said that a shimmer of possibility was in part inspired by Chekhov’s short stories, which achieve the greatest atmosphere from ordinary situations, the most vivid sense of time, place and character, with the most minimal of means, and with plain words beautifully arranged often in long lilting sentences.

 Whilst too literal a comparison would be unhelpful, Graham’s photographic sequences do have a Chekhovian pace and phrasing, one that makes effective use of the pause – in Graham’s case blank pages between images – and that strikes a balance between formlessness and structure.

In the Shimmer books, formless photographs, or perhaps more accurately photographs where form is incidental, are variously sized and irregularly placed on the page but in carefully planned succession. The sudden shifts of subject and viewpoint and the use of repetition deliberately dislodge the narrative flow but also allow us to share in Graham’s watchful fascination. Virginia Woolf, in her essay ‘Tchehov’s Questions’, noted something similar in Chekhov’s ‘choice of incidents and endings’ that unsettle the reader, giving the impression ‘that the ground upon which we expected to make safe landing has been twitched from under us.’ But somehow, she argued, things imperceptibly ‘arrange themselves, and we come to feel that the horizon is much wider from this point of view; we have gained an astonishing sense of freedom."

He quotes from Chekov, relating it to another group in the series , of a gas station and events therein while the sun is setting...

‘And when he was crossing the river on the ferry, and then when he was walking up the hill, looking down at his own village and across to the west, where the cold crimson sunset was glowing in a narrow band, he realised that truth and beauty, which had guided human life in that garden and at the high priest’s, had continued to do so without a break until the present day, and had clearly always constituted the most important elements in human life, and on earth in general; and a feeling of youth, health, and strength – he was only twenty two years old – and an inexpressibly sweet expectation of happiness, of unfathomable, mysterious happiness, gradually overcame him, and life seemed entrancing and miraculous to him, and full of sublime meaning.'

Anton Chekov, The Student

We are back in the realms of beauty, albeit of a different kind; beauty found in suburbia, as a reflection of  everyday routines and chance

The enormous scale of many of the images is striking; some are 2-3metres high/wide, reaching from floor to ceiling. My only criticism of the exhibition is the lack of printed information to accompany the works; admittedly the exhibition is free, but £35 for a catalogue is not within everyone's budget.

All of the works are framed in beautiful box frames, either white, occasionally plain wood and also black. I wonder how they are transported, as box frames are much more vulnerable to damage as the glass is not close to the solid back, but floats in front.

It is an exhibition to impress, and to provoke. I recommend it.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

On Beauty


I have said that I would like to write about beauty; but what is it?

Picasso said .....................

"Beauty?... To me it is a word without sense because I do not know where its meaning comes from nor where it leads to."

This seems very sensible, since much of what we see as beautiful has been ingrained in us by the media and our cultural background. Fatness and thinness are beautiful or not depending on where in the world you live. Our choices of furniture and decor are a mirror on the society that we live in. The aesthetic movement was known for creating a lifestyle, affecting not just how we create art, but also what furniture, wall coverings and china were used.

Another view is that beauty is useless;

"Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance." ~John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, 1851

After seeing the aesthetic movement displayed at the V&A, I have seen a surfeit of peacocks, particularly as part of ornate friezes hand painted above the picture rail in the homes of wealthy members of the movement.

I am not sure that I agree with Ruskin that beautiful things are in general  useless. If they give us pleasure then is that not enough?

Alain de Botton, in his book "How Proust can change your life",  talks about the gap between our own lives and the realm of beauty, or between what we imagine and what really exists. He describes the importance of images in our appreciation of our surroundings, and the risks of leaving home with the wrong ones. This idea rings true with me having visited Key West in Florida last year.

In my mind was an image of  leafy green coves and beautiful white sandy beaches on small islands. I think I had something like the Caribbean in mind. How wrong I was, and therefore how disappointed I felt when I arrived and found a very large town with narrow rocky beaches. I felt the same emotions that Proust's narrator felt when he arrived at Balbec in Normandy, and found it to be far from the rugged cliff-top, gothic coastline of his imagination. He arrived in a typical early twentieth century beach resort, busy and commercial, rather like Key West, and felt let down.

The following quote resonates ,

"Though we travel the world over to find the beautiful, we must carry it with us or we find it not". ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Proust's narrator was taken in hand and shown how to take pleasure from the boats on the water and the clothes of the other tourists in bright colours.

In other words, beauty is everywhere, we just have to find it, and that depends on our frame of mind. I find beauty in nature, which may be because of the frame of mind that natural places allow me.

"daydreams" by Caroline Fraser

To be deep in a wood,  high on a mountain, or alone on a beach is an uplifting experience; does that make it a beautiful place? John Muir certainly thought so....., and having hiked the John Muir trail into Yosemite I understand his sentiments...............

"Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul."

 So as DeBotton describes, beauty is something to be found, as in the active appreciation of new situations.
It is "incapable of answering the expectations of an over romantic imagination".

This course has confirmed to me that I find my beauty in nature. Not for me a designer handbag or a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes. Whilst contemplating this fact I  rememember  my favourite book on photography "Bortom Redan" or "Beyond Order". I am lucky enough to have copy of this book, which is now out of print, signed by the author. On the first page is a quote that confirms my view on beauty by James Gleick.

" The essence of the earth's beauty lies in disorder, a peculiarly patterned disorder, from the fierce tumult of rushing water to the tangled filigrees of unbridled vegetation".

Gleick collaborated with Eliot Porter on a book called "Nature's chaos", writing an essay about chaos theory in nature to accompany Porter's photographs. I have ordered a copy , as I feel that it may be relevant to my photography. He clearly had an influence on Jan Tove, who writes of the order and disorder of nature in his book. He describes the strucure of a tree and the nature of fractal geometry........

A fern is a classic example of a fractal in nature, as is a snowflake or a globe artichoke.

ferns in Allerce forest, Chile 

tree fern, Hollyford track, New Zealand

Jan Tove says

"the tree branches out from the trunk in all directions, down to the smallest shoot where the veins of the leaves repeat the broken pattern. The characteristic properties of the fractal are that it repeats itself in the same way as when two mirrors are angled towards each other. A chain of images occur. When studying a fractal we look into the borderland between chaos and order".

He appears to have been influenced by Gleick, as I have been influenced by Tove.

I prefer the disorderly order of nature to the enforced order of suburbia, and that is probably why I escape to forests and mountains whenever I get the chance.


Sunday, 17 April 2011

On beauty, portraiture and "The Cult of Beauty" at the V&A

So, I am in search of beauty; that much has become clear. I thought I might understand more about what it is by visiting The Cult of Beauty at the Victoria and Albert Museum. This is a new exhibition about the aesthetic movement bewween 1860 and 1900.

Midsummer by Albert Joseph Moore

The aesthetic movement artists sought to create a new kind of art, freed from cultural ideas and moral or religious codes; in other words "Art for Art's sake". They created art that existed only in order to be beautiful, with no moral point or stories behind the work. Artists such as James McNeill Whistler, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and William Morris were members, and the V&A museum opened in 1857 at the beginning of the movement.

Paintings contained women whose looks, and lifestyles, were at odds with conventional Victorian ideals of demure beauty; they created entirely new types of beauty. The artists brought together architecture, painting, china and furniture, describing how a complete room should look, in a description of " the house beautiful". They defined "taste" and "cultivation" as a way of living, and from this modern interior design and taste has developed. The aesthetic movment was the first "lifestyle revolution".

Oscar Wilde joined the group and became a the celebrity associated with aesthetic ideas. The choice of women models for paintings re-defined "beauty" and changed the way that women wished to be viewed. Flamboyancy in mens' clothing was described as "peacock dressing", a feature that re-emerged in the 1960's with a new style of dressing in a flamboyant way. The peacock, the lily, and the sunflower are the three motifs asociated with the movement.

Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 from Victoria and Albert Museum on Vimeo.

By the end of the 1800's red hair was established as a "beautiful" feature, thanks to artists such as Rossetti.

Sibylla by Rosssetti
So it seems that beauty was re-defined by the movement, a fact that fits with my experiences on this course; culture and history play important parts in defining what one individual or group sees as beautiful. Currently most photographers are using all white backgrounds for their websites; this will no doubt change in a few years time. Portrait photograhers have  moved from busy backdrops to simple white studio shots.  In North East Brazil, what counts as a beautiful portrait is very different to current British studio portraits.

Photo Paintings from North East Brazil © Collection Titus Riedl. Courtesy of Nazraeli Press
as seen at Brighton Photo Biennial 2010
There are very few photographs in the exhibition, but I was interested to see works by Julia Margaret Cameron, whose  illustrating her friend Tennyson's poem "Idylls of the King". I came across her work earlier when I first started researching books and poetry.

 These photographs are designed to look like oil paintings from the same time period, including rich details like historical costumes and intricate draperies. Nevertheless, Cameron saw these photographs as art, just like the oil paintings they imitated. The image below shows her maid dressed as a tragic heroine of Arthurian legend, with an excerpt form the poem as it's title.

Call I follow, I follow, let me die!
Julia Margaret Cameron, "Call I follow, I follow, let me die!" (Mary Hillier), c. 1867, albumen print, The Royal Photographic Society, Bath, England

I will talk more later about the effect of the movement on interior design and architecture. I found the china, furniture and paintings generally heavy and over ornate; a clear indicator that I live in a time when beauty is defined in a different way, with light and simplicity taking preference over ornate decor and rich colours.
I wonder how this affects nature photography; I am not yet sure that I know how I define beauty in nature. I need to explore this area, possibly by starting with what I find ugly.

I will leave you with a portrait and some flowers that remind me of all the blossom I have been capturing in suburbia. Notice also her red hair, the oriental vases and soft drapery that all defined beauty at that time.

Albert Moore "Azaleas" 1867

Algernon Swinburne, a critic at the time said
"the meaning of the painting is beauty: and its reason for being is to be"

Monday, 11 April 2011

Hand made books and self publishing. Hawkwood Press is born

late afternoon, Hawkwood

Now that I am focussed on outoor photography and "beauty" I am back enjoying my photography. I have ventured in to the woods at dawn and dusk, taken shots for my own diorama, and had fun with the bushes of suburbia. Suddenly walking the dog around the block has taken on a whole new source of pleasure; finding playful shots of bushes, fences, lamp posts and the like.

trees in BR1

 All of these subjects will fit well into the London Villages Project.London Villages Project

I have decided to self publish a book.

 I would like it to have a ISBN number; that way I can sell it in shops or on-line ( getting confident here...........), and a copy of it will have to be placed in the British Library. I like the idea of that. So I have been researching ISBN numbers, which are easy to acquire from the UK ISBN agency, Nielsen, who happen to be in Woking, where I was born. The numbers are supplied to publishers; in batches of 10 or more. Unfortunately they can't be passed on, so I will have to create my own publishing company and if anyone wishes to use one, they would have to be published under my company name. The alternative is to use an existing company, but then I would lose the overall control and the opportunity to choose a publishing name.

So what should it be called?

More research; on how to name a company; so much more fun than reading books or taking photographs; I feel as though I am moving into a whole new subject area. But that is the joy of this course; it takes one down new roads that were never imagined before starting. A hand made book and my own publishing company; this is fun.

So here are my top tips on how to name a company from the reading that I have done

It should be
  • relevant
  • a word that sounds strong
  • easy to spell for searches
  • a word that creates a visual image
  • short
  • not likely to tie you down too much in the future should your aims change
I looked on the British Book Fair website for the names of existing publishers; here are a few that stand out as being well known or memorable

  • Aurum
  • Envisage
  • 21st editions
  • Camberwell Press
  • Penguin

I considered using my own name but it is too long and not visually strong. I thought of several related to photography, the outdoors or with visual connections, but they have all been thought of before. So I am going to use Hawkwood Press. This relates to the first book that will come off the press, and is personal to me, but short enough and visual enough to work for other titles or other people should I wish to collaborate in the future. It is traditional, the word "press" meaning, amongst other things

a.printing press

b.a printing or publishing establishment

c.the art, business, or practice of printing

So for me it represents my foray into the publishing/printing world, but also represents my preference for the outdoors and doesn't restrict me to photographic works.

In order to apply for the ISBN number I have to submit exampes of the "Title Page" and "Title Page Verso"

The title page verso is

"a page on the back of the title page, where the bibliographical details and the copyright notice are printed"

examples and more information about ISBN numbers can be found at Nielsen.

This lead me on to further efforts to produce a document in InDesign. I can now import images, but it is a very steep learning curve. I really need to decide what type of binding and size my book will be before I do any more work on creating it.

I found some beautiful hand made books at Leijonstedt. The creator uses a white peacock fanned tail as her artist's mark, which represents the open pages of a book to great visual effect. I would like to create a logo, but am conscious that I am digressing further and further away from getting on with the project.

experimenting with symmetry

Having just returned from the V&A's new exhibition "The Cult of Beauty", I now also know that the Peacock is one of the key motifs of the Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 ( more on that later).

The aesthetic movement exhibited at the V&A in "The Cult of Beauty"

For now I need to decide on the size of my book, the type of binding, and get cracking.

my street; wherever I am in BR1 there are plane trails in the sky

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The joys of InDesign and outdoor photography in suburbia

I have a plan........

springtime in Bromley

finally I have an idea about what I am trying to produce. I have realised that I need to be outside to do my photography, and so there will be no more studio shots from around my home or anyone else's. As I mentioned before, I have written a poem called "Hawkwood", and I plan to make a book containing words and  images from the National Trust site of that name. It is tucked away behind Chislehurst station, and many locals are unaware that it exists. It will be a bespoke book, and for that reason I have now to achieve the following skills

firstly bookbinding; I have a two day course planned at Falkiner's bookbinders to learn the basic skills that will enable me to bind my own book. Having visited their shop I am very excited about the prospects of working with hand made papers and Japanese prints.

Falkiners bookbinders

Secondly I need to master InDesign. This is proving to be an immense challenge; after two days of watching U-tube videos and experimenting, I have finally managed to get a grip on creating Master pages and documents. This afternoon, while the sun is shining outside, I have been fighting with my printer, which will NOT print a booklet for me, no matter what I try. I have exported files to different formats, tried another printer, and all I have achieved is a microscopic version of the intended booklet that I hoped to print to show my achievements thus far.

Dog is getting lots of walks; around the streets of Bromley and down to the woods, but is having to be very patient when I stop to capture something suitable. As well as the book I am concentrating on the "bushes of suburbia" as opposed to "The Buddha of Suburbia" whose author also comes from around here.

one of the bushes of suburbia

I hope to show the contrast between the well groomed gardens of Bromley and the relative wilderness that lies down by the Kyd brook, otherwise known as the River Quaggy according to Wikipedia. There is a wealth of opportunity at the moment with the spring flowers.

Right now, I can't bear to be indoors any longer; I shall go back to the river and capture a few more rays of sunshine.

sun on Kyd brook