St Margaret’s, Hermingford Abbots

Ellacombe apparatus, St Margaret’s, Hemingford Abbots

Walking at Hemingford Abbots and Houghton yesterday. Bells drew us to the church of St Margaret of Antioch after lunch.  It’s one of some 250 such dedications in Britain.  Margaret, is known as Margaret of Antioch in the West, and as Saint Marina the Great Martyr in the East.  She is said to have been martyred in 304; though she was declared apocryphal by Pope Gelasius 200 years later, devotion to her revived in the West during the Crusades.  She was reputed to have promised powerful indulgences to those who wrote or read her life, or invoked her intercessions. Margaret is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, and one of the saints Joan of Arc claimed to have spoken with.  Her saint’s day in the Anglican Church is 17th July.

Clock mechanism, St Margaret’s Hemingford Abbots

The bells that summoned us were being played by one man on a bell frame. Known as an Ellacombe apparatus, it is a mechanism devised in 1821 (200th anniversary this year) by Reverend Henry Thomas Ellacombe for performing change ringing on church bells by striking stationary bells with hammers.  He wanted an alternative to dealing with unruly local bell ringers.  This method does not have the same sound as full circle ringing due to the absence of the Doppler effect, as the bells do not rotate and the lack of a damping of the clapper after each strike.  It sounded more like a carillon to me.  The cogs and gears of an ancient clock hang above the frame – it looks as if it might have been made by the local blacksmith.

In the churchyard a pale grey granite headstone: ‘Tom Stocker  Farmer 1939-2019  True hope is swift and flies with swallows wings’.

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Footfall: Nice Cover, Shame About the Book

‘Does the artist understand their work best?’  That’s the question posed in the Royal Academy of Arts Magazine, Summer 2021.  Yes, argues critic Matthew Holman, ‘because they possess a more profound understanding of what they are up to’.  No, says painter Fiona Rae RA, suggesting that ‘the artist is as clueless as anybody else is as to what their work is really about’.  I don’t claim to be an artist, but the question might asked about my photography.

I gave a copy of Footfall to a friend a couple of weeks ago and she gave me her opinion in a concise six-point critique on Saturday.  (1)  It has no clear focus, it is neither one thing nor the other.  (2)  Less than a third of the photographs are any good, many look like makeweights or afterthoughts.  (3) It includes subjects dealt with in my previous projects.  (4)  The photographs are poorly reproduced, lacking in detail and depth of tone.  (5) The photographs are also too small.  (6) Printing is on poor quality paper.  In the spirit of Mrs Lincoln forced to comment on the play, she did like the cover photograph.

Footfall 15

Depending on what the viewer is looking for in a book of photographs, there might be something is some or all of these criticisms; but criticism should focus on how the book fails to achieve its intentions, not on how it does not come up to some other standard.  In my defence I plead what I said in this blog on 29th January: ‘Regardless of the weather and at no particular time, I’m strolling the streets camera in hand from the same starting point, home, waiting to see what turns up and relying on the gift of serendipity.  I’m not aiming for beautifully composed and exposed pictures.  Perhaps some will be, perhaps most won’t.  I want to explore the often messy nature of urban walking in the changeable dour months of winter that will transition into hopeful early spring.’  An afterword in Footfall covers some of this.

Footfall 16

Still, maybe the intention is not clear and this statement could have been repeated and elaborated on in an introduction, but there are times for eschewing such hand holding, for showing not telling.  The viewer/reader can be expected to work at a book and tease out some of its meaning.  For example, there are two particular consecutive photographs in Footfall that with careful study reveal some of what this exploration of the nature of urban walking about.  As with the earlier book, Undertow, it’s a matter of exploring the about rather than the of.

Anyway, to quote Fiona Rae again, ‘…I think I prefer art that’s prone to misunderstanding.  Art that tells you what and how to think and feel always remains somewhat at the level of instruction and illustration…you’re probably being told what you already know.’

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Footfall Final

I introduced my Walking project on 29th January 2021.  Around 50 photographs from it have appeared up to 29th May, when I described bringing the work together in a Blurb book, Footfall – copies arrived on the 7th June.  The project was originally conceived as a largely photographic exercise, but evolved into something closer to a reflection on the nature of urban walking.  This was influenced by simultaneously reading around the subject, especially The Walker – On Finding and Losing Yourself in the Modern City, Matthew Beaumont, 2020, Flaneuse, Lauren Elkin, 2016 and  Wanderlust – A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit, 2001.  Brief quotes from these and other writers accompany the photographs.  Footfall is structured very loosely around seven implied themes: how and why; pleasures; interactions; epiphanies; deviance; urban environment; philosophy; and threats.  The book concludes with the following short afterword describing how it came about.

Footfall 38

‘The street is the only region of valid experience’, according to Andre Breton in Najda, quoted by Matthew Beaumont in The Walker – On Finding and Losing Yourself in the Modern City.  If this exaggerates the pleasures of the street, one should expect no less from a Surrealist; and we live in curious pandemic times when walking has been one of the few valid experiences available, so it’s allowable.  ‘No walk, as far as I am concerned, is ever wasted’, claims Beaumont, ‘In contrast…to a car journey’.  Walking makes him feel alive and ‘vitally connected to the city’s ceaseless circuits of energy and, at the same time, delicately detached from them.’ 

Footfall 39

‘In this spirit, I’ve walked the streets from my home regardless of the weather and at no particular time of day, camera in hand, waiting to see what turns up and relying on the gift of serendipity.  There is nothing new in this.  Artists such as Sophie Calle, Hamish Fulton, Richard Long and many others have explored the walk creatively throughland art, conceptual art, street photography and film. Footfall is a record of time and place and offers a reflection on urban walking.’

‘Footfall is the result of 36 walks taken between 20th December 2020 and 29th March 2021. All photographs were made on film.’

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Fen Landscape – Rampton

Walked out along Cow Lane, Rampton, yesterday – early to beat the sun. A favourite fen stroll. The scent of elder flowers has replace the cow parsley. A weasel and a muntjac deer ran across the road ahead of us. Cautious fen farmers usually use redundant machinery or concrete blocks to bar their crops to undesirable intruders – this one has a rustic barrier to protect his field of beans.

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Final Frame – End of the Roll

From my reading about photography and photographers over the years I’ve accumulated a feeling that many a shoot has been saved by the telling image made on the last frame (not to be confused with a ‘film end’).  It’s probably a false impression, but it remains.  Googling something like ‘last frame’ or ‘end of the roll’ provides no evidence one way or the other, instead you get taken into the realms of film buffery and carpet retailing. And I did discover: Sami Matarante (aka Sami Jones), who has compared first and last frames (www.thesamijones.com/blog); and an Instagram account dedicated to the first frame of a 35mm roll, f1rstoftheroll.

Perhaps there are examples of photograph gold in the last frame, but I’ve probably turned a couple of examples into a generality without any evidence to back it up.  It isn’t without a certain logic, however.  As you use a roll of film on a single subject or event, you can build confidence, get to know the subject and refine what you are trying to achieve, so the last 10 frames might be better than the first.

I decided to look for evidence in my recent walking project (now called Footfall), in which I made a final cut of 85 images from nine 35mm rolls.  Pictures were selected from all but four of the 36 frame numbers, giving an average of 2.5 pictures per frame.  Four images each came from frames 6, 8, 12, 17 and 36.  Amalgamating the numbers in four groups gives the following picture: frames 1-9, 20 images; frames 10-18, 17; frames 19-27, 19; and frames 28-36, 26.  Taking a doubly selective tack, a selection from a selection, my favourite four images are from frames 3, 20, 26 and 34.  There’s not enough here to support the hypotheses of film end bias.  The bias is in my mind.

Footfall 30-31 (Frame 34)
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Brandt for Children

Ear on the Beach, Bill Brandt, 1957

Eighteen contributors to the Royal Academy of Arts Magazine (No. 151, summer 2021) were asked to nominate ‘The artists they think every child should see’. Just one, Lily Bertrand-Webb, herself a photographer, nominated a photographer. She said: ‘The photographer Bill Brandt – his distorted close-ups of ears and hands on pebble beaches are so imaginative and playful. I used to try to copy them when I was by the sea as a little girl.’

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Classical Contrasts 34 Vespasian

This gallery contains 3 photos.

Vespasian was Roman emperor from 69 to 79. The fourth and last in the Year of the Four Emperors, he founded the Flavian dynasty that ruled the Empire for 27 years. Figure: one of The Twelve Caesars, Italian (Roman) School … Continue reading

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Master of Photography

Gillian Allard, winner 2017 Sky Arts Master of Photography

Last week was a modest feast of TV photography.  I watched the final of the re-run of Sky Arts 2017 Master of Photography contest (winner Gillian Allard); and caught the first in the BBC 4 series Great British Photography Challenge.  The latter looks like a rip-off of the former, but they are really very different.  The Sky offering has high production values and budgets – with the BBC you are sent to Brighton or Birmingham, Sky sent you to Lapland or Morocco (and there was an eroticism assignment, I can’t wait to see the BBC’s alternative).  Sky had judges that were refreshingly tough for reality TV; Rankin, who is mentoring the BBC contestants, is more avuncular than acerbic.

What the series have in common is a peculiar view of what makes a master of photography.  It was too much to hope that they would be asked to go back to basics: the blessing and curse of digital photography is that all too often you can get away without knowing any of this, the camera does it for you or you rely on post production or both.  But f-stops and hyperfocal distances wouldn’t make very good TV.  More worrying was the way the contestants were sent out on diverse assignments and given an hour or maybe a day to come up with images worthy of a master. 

Rankin and Great British Photography Challenge contestants 2021

The BBC challenges so far have included wildlife, fashion and celebrity shoots, smart phones on Brighton beach and in a gym, and documentary of a wholesale market.  While the contestants each purport to have an area of specialisation they seemed to set out with only a hazy understanding of how to go about the assignments.  This was exemplified by the documentary where there was little grasp of how to approach it and build as story (the clue is in the word, ‘documentary’).  Perhaps the Newport School model – establishing, relationship and close-up shots – is passé, but it tells the story.  Ultimately it’s all superficial – if it makes exciting TV, and that’s doubtful, it doesn’t make good, and certainly not great, photography.

Watching Mark Lawson Talks to David Bailey on BBC 4, the same night as GBPC episode one, was an antidote to this instant approach to photography.  The master summed up the gap: he said that with modern digital photography anybody can take on great picture, ‘I can take two’; he was too modest to add ‘day after day.’

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Blue Rope – Magog Down 2

Gog Magog Down, Cambridge, 30th May 2021

I drew attention to the intrusive inclusion of the path in my Blue Rope photograph posted on 2nd May. I visited the Down yesterday (the cowslips have almost disappeared and the dog daisies are in waiting) and took a phone picture of the rope again. The composition and lighting (afternoon instead of morning) are very different – both included here for comparison. I’m not satisfied with either.

Magog Down, 30th April 2021
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Photographic Ups and Downs

Thursday 27th was a day of photographic ups and downs.

Footfall 5 ‘…the only living mammal, that is an obligatory striding biped’, 2020

On the upside, the final version of my latest photobook, Footfall, was sent to Blurb for printing.  I tweaked a few of the pictures and included eight new ones that I thought would add to the overall impact after reviewing a printed draft.  I think it stands as a memoir of the lockdown days in the winter of 2020-21.  I’ll post more details when the final printed copies arrive.  Some of the photographs in Footfall have appeared on this blog under the heading ‘Walking’.

On the down side, I received the following e-mail from Jane Lloyd at Shutterhub about the ‘Poetry’ competition (see post 15th January 2021 ).  

Venice 2008

‘Thank you for your patience as the selection process for POETRY took longer than our usual calls for entry. I am sorry to let you know that your work hasn’t been selected for the Shutter Hub Editions publication POETRY.  Due to the format of our printed publications we were restricted in the number of images we could include, and we received an extremely high volume of entries. It’s not a comment on your work or your ability – we were completely overwhelmed with entries and it’s just that we have to consider what works together in that format.’

This comes as no surprise and is only mildly disappointing.  The brief was very open-ended with scope for wide interpretation; and I imagine that it would have been possible to make half a dozen perfectly good selections that fitted the brief from the submissions.  The selection panel had a clear idea of what it was looking for in terms of both individual images and the overall form of the book.  My pictures may have been very wide of the mark – I look forward to seeing the final selection reveal just how far off target I was.

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Bartlow

Bartlow, Cambs., May 2021

The pleasures of walking from Bartlow on Wednesday:  fresh air and quiet; rolling countryside (I spend too much time on the Fen edge); patterns of light and shade drifting across the landscape; fresh spring green oak and beech and hawthorn in scanted flower; cow parsley, green alkanet, white campion, and humble dandelion; chiffchaff, willow warbler and skylark; and a kite soaring on angled wings and buzzards displaying over the Romano-British burial mounds. Good company, too.

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One Cold Hand Revisited

Did a four-mile circular walk from Bartlow yesterday. I saw this sign on the gate at the waste water treatment works between Bartlow and Ashdon. It took me back to making two early photo books: One Cold Hand – A Challenge (2010) and Another Cold Hand – Random Signs (2012). Neither would have been possible without irresponsibly lost gloves.

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Walking 45

‘I walk because I like it.  I like the rhythm of it…’

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Minsmere Regeneration

May 18th-22nd, four nights in Southwold; weather more autumn than spring, November rather than May.

The 19th, a trip to Minsmere, despite the threat of rain; walking the Coast trail rewarded with swifts, warblers trilling, bitterns booming, terns carrying sand eels to their young and the tumbling aerial ballet of a corps of avocets.

Minsmere 1, Suffolk, May 2021

Picnic lunch dodging the rain.  Then onto the Island Mere trail, which merged into the Woodland trail and a clamber up into the canopy hide – bathed in birdsong. Discovery of the day, bitterns and avocets notwithstanding: once towering beech trees felled in the great storm of 1987 lying prone but regenerating – branches striking new roots and fresh trunks shooting up vertically from the old.  The hopeful, restorative power of nature – an epiphany illuminated by a brief burst of sunshine.

Minsmere 2, Suffolk, May 2021
Minsmere 2, Suffolk, May 2021
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Walking 44

‘…the unexpected insights and juxtapositions…’

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