Remounting Medusa

‘In September, we removed our cast of the Medusa pediment from the Temple of Artemis on Corcyra (modern-day Corfu) for essential conservation work. Now it’s time for her to come home, with fresh repairs and a new mounting system courtesy of the team at Cliveden Conservation to ensure that she remains in place for future generations to enjoy.’

‘Our cast of the Medusa pediment was purchased in 1930, ten years after the temple and its sculptures were discovered – but our catalogue doesn’t preserve the details of who made the cast, or where we got it from. It’s a bit of a mystery. However, we are probably one of very few cast collections to have this cast. Certainly, our cast is the only one in the UK.’

‘The Temple of Artemis at Corcyra is the earliest known example of sculptural decoration carved in stone from the Greek world. The central group, repeated on both sides (although only very fragmentarily preserved on one side), features a huge 3m+ figure of a grimacing Medusa, mid-run and ready to turn those who look upon her to stone.’

What’s On, University of Cambridge, December 2019

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Analog Sea and Photography

Further to my post about the omission of photography from Analog Sea (22nd November), an interview with Canadian film maker Peter Mettler by editors Jonathan Simons and Janos Tedeschi in Analog Sea Review Number 2 (2019) suggests some inconsistencies in its approach.

Undertow, p.37

Mettler says the using cameras ‘does make me see more deeply into things’, though acknowledging the risk that it can be like taking poison ‘if you want to be extreme’.   Jonathan Simons responds by referencing Wim Wenders, who said, ‘he just couldn’t bring himself to take pictures anymore because they’re everywhere’.  Wenders published a book of his Polaroids taken during the 1970s and 1980s, to accompany an exhibition at the Photographers Gallery, London, in 2017 – presumably he still thought photography had some value!  Mettler in turn acknowledges the work of photographer Robert Frank, ‘who’s made great documentations of real life on the streets, and it’s an epic body of work for its time’, then goes on to regret that ‘now everybody is doing that….it’s no longer so special’.

Undertow, p.49

Simmons makes an eloquent reference to the importance of analog working: it ‘…maintains at least some connection to nature and physicality.  Recording sound or image on analog media is an organic process…’  Mettler agrees: ‘The different processes retain different connections to the original experience.’  He explains how he used analog material to film the Kogi people in Colombia, because he saw it as being more in tune with their way of life.  He also describes the relative complexity of modern digital cameras; and Simons agrees that ‘an analogue camera seems limited to drastically fewer technical distractions’.  Mettler accepts the challenges posed by the surfeit material, yet says that it’s worth carrying on, ‘like stepping into an immensely mysterious dancehall and using whatever tools you have to understand the nature of the dance’.

What do I take from this?  Well, an acknowledgement of the value of photography in the first place.  Then support for analogue film processes, which is consistent with the case I made for analogue photography in the first post.  More broadly, the implied support in the interview for Mettler, faced by a glut of moving images, seems to me to be an argument for not being distracted by the perceived glut of still photographs.  Analog Sea could shine a light that illuminates great photography for its off-line audience  In part of the interview that explores the importance of things outside the ‘familiar system’, Janos Tedeschi says, ‘Ultimately, it’s about being fully open to whatever emerges…’

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Take a Seat – Take a Moment 20

Mill Road Winter Fair, Cambridge 191207-1

Mill Road Winter Fair, Cambridge, Saturday 7th December 2019.

Mill Road Winter Fair, Cambridge 191207-2
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Ralph Gibson

Quadrants, Ralph Gibson

I’ve spent time recently researching photographers to include in my ‘Telling Image’ classes at the Cambridge U3A.  At the back of my mind has been a strong, simple graphic image of the edge of a wall that I might have included.  Unfortunately I couldn’t remember the photographer, only that I associated it with my involvement with the Cambridge Darkroom in the early 1980s.  It niggled away and this afternoon it suddenly occurred to me that I should look at some old copies of the Creative Camera Year Book.  I didn’t find the picture, but found a feature on Ralph Gibson in the 1975 edition and knew that was the name that had eluded me.  The picture, from Quadrants (1975) is shown opposite.

Wikipedia writes of Gibson: ‘Ralph Gibson is an American art photographer best known for his photographic books. His images often incorporate fragments with erotic and mysterious undertones, building narrative meaning through contextualization and surreal juxtaposition.’  He is still active, but seems to receive little notice these days.

PS How we miss the wisdom of Peter Turner and Creative Camera.

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Issues Photography

Undertow, p.103

We discussed photography and art at the U3AC Telling Image session last Friday (29th). Several people expressed regret that photography is increasingly dominated by issue based work (the same might be said for other art forms too).  I don’t have any empirical evidence for this, but it feels right – Nan Goldin and Olafur Eliasson at Tate Modern, Eco-Visionaries at the RA and Shot in Soho at the Photographers’ Gallery point in that direction.  Is this at the expense of more conceptual work and art for art’s sake?  I don’t know.

Cambridge Cattle Market, 1987

History shows that the essential nature of photography makes it the ideal medium for documentary work, a way of shining light on issues facing society while still aspiring successfully to be art.  For example:  Street Life in London, John Thompson, 1877-78; the work of the Farm Security Administration, 1937 onwards; many of the stories covered by of Magnum photographers from 1947; and Sebastiao Salgado’s Genesis, 2013.  The nature of such work and how it is used and displayed means that it’s likely to have a higher profile than more contemplative work, like that of Atget and John Blakemore, say.  It’s more newsworthy, if nothing else.

I’m not sure it matters.  The best issue based photography can be art; and all works of art in any medium can be interpreted in terms of their aesthetic, social, political and economic contexts and content.

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Hunstanton 30th November.  Driving up here from Cambridge through a pale, rimy landscape sparkling in welcome November sun.  Beyond King’s Lynn the mist and frost clear; the roadsides are punctuate with patches of red and gold.  Hunstanton basks in the sun, rocks and groynes cast dark shadows, the tide is falling.  Pairs of fulmars grunt and bicker hoarsely from their ledges along the cliffs; below, slabs of chalk, smoothed by the sea, shimmer in the low sun.  It’s calm; far out across the Wash wind turbines turn slowly under cloud castles.

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Photo Art

Jesus College boathouse, Cambridge, November 2019

An hour plus this morning wrestling with photography as art.  Some photographs are, but not all, any more than all canvases daubed with paint are.  Then walking by the river to clear our minds and the air.  Silent boathouses in the late autumn sun.

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Postcards from Great Britain

This gallery contains 5 photos.

‘Postcards from Great Britain is a new largescale project from Shutter Hub which invites photographers to share their visions of British culture through photographic images and create conversations and exchange. Exhibitions will be held in locations across Europe, with related events, … Continue reading

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155 Mowbray Road, Cambridge

Referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union.  Totals for the Cambridge City area were: remain 42, 682 (73.8%); leave 15,117 (26.2%).  Rejected ballot papers: 53.

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Rook, road kill

Rook under a lime tree, Mowbray Road, Cambridge, yesterday. The corvidae are among the most intelligent of birds. This one, probably hit by a car, was not quite clever enough.

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Analog Sea

‘Analog Sea is a small community of writers and artists wishing to maintain contemplative life in the digital age.  We publish high quality printed books and a biannual journal, The Analog Sea Review.  Our mission is to support what we call offline culture.  We are interested in what poets, novelists, essayists, and visual artists create in solitude…’  The Analog Sea Bulletin, Winter 2018-2019

Analog Sea Review, Number Two

Jonathan Simons, Founding Editor, spoke on, and lead a discussion about, printed books in the digital age at the Groundwork Gallery, King’s Lynn, on 20th November.  Analog Sea does not promote itself on-line, so the audience was largely already aware of it and supported Jonathan’s mission.  But this was no gathering of Luddites, all accepted that the digital world is with us and is undoubtedly useful.  The concern was about being in control and achieving a balance between the real and the virtual, a balance giving greater priority to authenticity and lived, as opposed to mediated, experiences.  The Analogue Sea Review, a thought provoking, beautifully produced pocket size book is the physical embodiment of this, a philosophy expressed through an object.

The first two issues of the Review include several reproductions of artworks.  Jonathan stated explicitly that it publishes fine art, but not photography.  I challenged him on this: ‘Why is reproduction of an artwork preferred to a photograph?’  His answer was that fine art (painting and drawing) was a more considered process and took more time to achieve than photography.  I suggested that he was ‘prioritising perspiration over inspiration’.  Pressed, he acknowledged that photography can require the application of considerable skill and effort, nevertheless he doesn’t want to include photography because there is so much of it about.  We agreed to differ without having the time to take the discussion further.

I do agree with Johnathan about one thing: the world is deluged with photographs, largely of indifferent quality, the product of the digital revolution.  I have to say that I see a lot of indifferent paintings, drawings and prints in galleries and open studios too.  However, the prioritisation of ‘fine art’ over ‘photography’ has echoes of the old debate about whether a photograph is, or can be, a work of art, a debate that was surely resolved in the affirmative by Paul Strand and Alfred Stieglitz 100 years ago.  Some practitioners now prefer to call themselves artists working with photography, though many are still happy to be called photographers.

Undertow, p.69 (analogue image)

I think a reconciliation lies in the word ‘analog’, or rather ‘analogue’.  There are photographers, some would say a increasing number, who still use analogue technologies, materials and processes, such as traditional film, calotype, tintype, platinotype and cyanotype .  It’s sometimes referred to as ‘real photography’, not a term I favour.  Taking what Analog Sea stands for, this photography should commend itself because: it’s not digital; it encourages thoughtful looking and slower working; and it requires considerable traditional craft skill.  The resulting photographic print has a beauty, depth, physicality and presence not found in prints derived from digital processes; like the Review, it is a philosophy expressed in an object.  Analog Sea should be supporting this analogue world.

I’m aware of the irony in publishing this on my blog!

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Tree Days

Oak, Fulbourn Fen

13th November: Walking round Fulbourn Fen; stately oaks and a magnificent beech with bifurcated trunk.  14th November: ‘The Susurrations of Trees’, Radio 4; Bob Gilbert on how poets and musicians capture the distinctive sounds of trees; Lisa Knapp incorporates the sounds of leaves in her beautiful violin piece.

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Undertow cover

Final copies of Undertow (see post 191015) arrived from Blurb on the 4th November.  I was pleased, and relieved, to find that the printing matched the standard achieve in the draft (not always the case, I’m afraid).  I’ve now pasted two vintage postcards, an old photograph and a sealed envelope of captions into each of the seven copies.  So, it’s finally done after a long gestation.

Undertow is light on text.  A few lines at the beginning hint at its purpose.  ‘Undertow: an undercurrent that flows in a different direction from the surface current; a hidden tendency often contrary to the one that is publicly apparent.’  Thirteen quotes from favourite books, such as ‘… the nature which, we have always hoped, will endure long after our own end…’, are set against selected pictures.

Undertow p.37

An afterword includes an extract stressing the difference between what a photograph is of and what it’s about from On Looking at Photographs by David Hurn and Bill Jay.      I conclude: ‘If you need to know what the photographs and other images included here are of you may open the envelope at the back of this book.  Resist the temptation to do so.  What they are about is up to you.’

I’m not sure where the idea for this book came from, nor when it started.  I recall only that I began to sets aside some prints that didn’t fit in with other projects I was working on, but which nevertheless I was drawn to through their somewhat mysterious quality.  I put them in a box file labelled ‘Conceptual’, a bit pretentiously.  As the number grew the idea of making a book began to form.  Seeing ‘Joseph Cornell – Wanderlust’ at the Royal Academy in 2015 alerted me to two ideas: the concept of ‘imaginary travel’; and the practice of combining found materials into coherent images or objects.

Undertow pp104-105

The very hazy concept became slowly more concrete and I decided that the aim should be for the book to trigger speculation by encouraging observation, exploration and mysterious associations.  It would pose visual puzzles, blur the boundaries between fact and fiction and suggest multiple and metaphorical meanings and interpretations. The hope was that there would be interactions between the varied contents of the book and between all of these and the reader.  Each page would be an invitation to tell a story, or maybe many stories; and the whole book might metamorphose into a narrative, differing for each reader.

Undertow p.13

Knowing where the book was going shaped my way of working.  I still added pictures somewhat randomly to my ‘conceptual’ box, but was beginning to make more with this project in mind.  I also went back through past negative and digital files to review them with fresh eyes, which proved to be both a rewarding (some good additions) and a salutary (too much dross) exercise.  I never did get through all the files: J said ‘You should stop that and go out a shoot some new pictures’, which I duly did.  The earliest picture dates from December 1965, the most recent from August 2019; 85% of the pictures are post 2000, 60% post 2010.

Undertow p.103

By the beginning of September 2019 I had a pile of around 350 potential pictures.  In May I had decided to limit the book to 100 photographs, which became the working title for posting on this blog.  A first pass at the editing was comparatively easy: the elimination of pictures that has got into the pile before my vision for the book had crystallised.  A long editing session with J followed – we didn’t always agree!  I also had useful feedback from the blog postings.  The final choice was mine alone. Ninety-six of the photographs are black and white, four are colour.

At the same time I was collecting other material – books, maps, photographs and postcards – from charity shops and antique markets.  Eight pieces, three originals and five scans, went into the book. Again, the choice was mine alone, indeed none of these pieces was seen by other people in advance.

Undertow p.59

The images and text then had to be sequenced.  I laid out everything and began moving pieces around to see how they related to each other and to try to establish an overall feel for how the book might look.  The only restriction I imposed was that the four colour photographs and the twenty-one other pieces should be distributed fairly evenly through the book.  I largely avoided pairing pictures with obvious visual links on facing pages, though this is so in some cases and it would have been perverse not to have recognised the connections. The sequence decided, I then made a loose leaf dummy of the book.

Undertow p.77

I hope the audience of friends for this very short print run will find Undertow accessible and engaging, yet intriguing and mysterious.  Some readers may spot images that I’ve included as homages to past photographers. If its meaning differs from person to person it will have achieved its aims.

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Tate Modern View

Sumner Street, London

‘Residents living in flats overlooked by the Tate Modern on London’s Southbank have lost their High Court bid to stop “hundreds of thousands of visitors” looking into their homes from the art gallery’s viewing platform.  Mr Justice Mann dismissed their claim at a hearing in London, saying: “These properties are impressive, and no doubt there are great advantages to be enjoyed in such extensive glassed views, but that in effect comes at a price in terms of privacy.”’ Evening Standard, February 2019

Maybe less grandiose housing to meet the needs of the not so super rich would have produced fewer complaints.  Anyway, it’s the street views, not sitting rooms that are worth looking at.

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Fen Landscape 36 – Long Drove, Cottenham

Long Drove, Cottenham

Long Drove runs north-east straight for two and a half miles from Cottenham into the Fens; add another mile and a half of dog legs and you end up on the bank of the Great Ouse.  Drove: a herd or flock of animals being driven in a body; a drovers’ road for moving livestock on foot from one place to another.  There’s little livestock in Cottenham now; arable fields stretch to the horizon and trucks and tractors trundle along the Drove.

Land on the way to the Ouse carries anachronistic names from a pastoral Fenland history: Mason’s Pastures, Green End Cow Pastures; The Lots, Mitchell Hill Common, The Undertakers, and Chear Fen.  There was a pastoral way of life that produced Double Cottenham, a blue-moulded cheese, creamier in texture and a little flatter and broader in shape than Stilton.  Its unique flavour was supposed to have come from the wild thyme rich grass on which the cows grazed.  No cows, no thyme now.

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