Anyone seeing my street photography on Instagram will have noticed that it often includes seated people. Why? Is it just an accident; or do I go to lots of places where people want to sit down? Is it because it’s easier than catching bodies in motion, the telling fleeting gesture; or is it to reduce the risk of having to engage with people, taking them while their attention is elsewhere. Perhaps all of these. Or maybe something else: the pleasure of seeing people in quiet moments of contemplation or concentration, rest or reverie, in busy public places. Slow photography?
Photo: Rodin’s The Kiss, Turner Contemporary, Margate, 2012
The brief for the walkabout practical session last week was the following. ‘The title “The Other Cambridge” is deliberately vague and wide open. The sub-title is “the Cambridge that the tourists don’t see”. So anything that you consider falls into that category can be included. The only rule is that images have to be taken on 8th March, anytime during that day (not merely during our class time).’ A suggested supplementary requirement was that the picture should be recognisably of Cambridge. Members were asked to submit up to three pictures. The results were presented and discussed on Friday 15th.
Sixteen members of the Forum submitted 45 photographs, which Mike Morrish put into five categories, buildings (12), people and places (10), places (10), details (8) and transport (5). Around 90% of the pictures were in colour. Members met the requirement of photographing the Cambridge the tourists don’t see in one of two ways. First, by the choice of location, which ranged from the A14 to the Elizabeth Way roundabout, Addenbrooke’s to Fen Road, the Lime Kiln Pits to the Science Park and including various unlikely corners. Second, by picturing the City from high or low viewpoints, by looking over walls and by picking out easily missed details. The best pictures began to establish a new visual language for Cambridge.
At J’s suggestion I concentrated on churchyards in or close the City centre. These included All Saint’s Garden, the Catholic Church, Great St Mary’s, Little St Mary’s, Michaelhouse, the Round Church, St Benet’s, St Botolph’s, St Clement’s, St Edward’s and St Paul’s. I took photographs in only seven of these and it was easy to narrow my three down to Little St Mary’s, St Benet’s and St Edwards, which are shown here.
The 9th East Norfolk Regiment taking the Sikh batteries and camp ‘at the point of the bayonet’ on the second day of the Battle of Ferozeshah, 21st – 22nd December 1845. Diorama presented to the Ancient House Museum, Thetford, by the British Flat figure society. Who knew there was a Battle of Ferozeshah? Who knew there was a British Flat Figure Society?
I wasn’t far into the Don McCullin exhibition at Tate Britain today before Brexit ennui and despair asserted themselves: in a world beset by state and personal violence it’s self-indulgence to flirt with nationalism and move away from cooperation. At the end of hundreds of pictures across 18 theatres of suffering there was evidence enough of darkness as the continuing condition for too much of humankind. A coda of still lifes and darkly romantic landscapes did little to lift my mood.
But for all its sombre tones McCullin’s retrospective was well attended by a mixed audience. I couldn’t help but wonder why they were there; this is not an exhibition to drop into on a whim with the hope it will lift to the spirits. Most probably a number were interested seriously in photography and the close attention given to the pictures by some proved the point. Maybe there were other factors at play: McCullin might just qualify as a National Treasure (albeit one less cuddly than some); the recent engaging documentary on TV can’t have done any harm; and here was an opportunity to revisit with the benefit of (safe) hindsight several troubled decades.
If the latter, this poses questions about the purpose of the exhibition. Is it about McCullin the photographer or McCullin the man who is angry with the evils and inequities in the world? Admission to the exhibition comes with an A3+ leaflet. The whole of one side is devoted to a timeline of conflict from 1939 to 2015, from World War II to IS and war in Syria. The other side includes two photographs, miscellaneous information and a small block of text about the photographer – only 5% of the whole leaflet. The exhibition is as much about conflict, poverty and loss as photography (and certainly the art of photography is relegated to the background). McCullin never wears his profession lightly.
Friday’s session was a practical: out and about taking photographs of ‘The Other Cambridge’. My efforts will be revealed next week. In the meantime, here’s a spectacular coat and umbrella spied (by me and another) on Trinity Street. Photo: Trinity Street, Cambridge, 8th March 2019
I found this picture when I was sorting through my files of old negatives and contact sheets the other day. It was taken on Portobello Road, London, on 30th September 1966. It is probably my first piece of street photography and I have no idea who the subject is. I was quite pleased with it at the time and still think it’s not too bad, given my lack of experience.
But it’s not the photographic quality that drew me back to it and made me look at it afresh. I had just finished reading Andrea Levy’s Small Island and by unhappy coincidence she had just died. Looking at the boy now I wonder how he fitted into the story of the Windrush Generation. I guess he would have been born around 1960, 12 years after the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury and likely the child of later arrivals. How did his life unfold – did that pensive child grow into a happy and fulfilled adult? Where is he now?
(My notes with the negative say that the
photograph was taken with a Minolta Autocord on Kodak Verichrome Pan film rated
160 asa, 1/125 sec at f16, film developed in Acutol for 9 minutes at 68o. How photography has changed!)
‘Xanthorrhoea glauca, known as the grass tree, is a large plant in the genus Xanthorrhoea, widespread in eastern Australia. The trunk can grow in excess of 5 metres tall, and may be many branched. It is occasionally seen in large communities in nutrient rich soils. The leaves are a grey or bluish glaucous green…. Aboriginal (Ngunnawal) uses: The flower spike soaked in water makes a sweet drink. The growing part of the leaf stem and the white leaf bases can be eaten. The dried flower stems form a base for fire drills when making a fire. The resin from the base of the leaves is a glue used when making weapons and axes.’ Wikipedia Photo: Botanic Garden, Cambridge, February 2019
On Friday Sue Fifer treated the Forum to the lively story of how she dealt with the 11,000 slides (mounted transparencies) left by her late husband. Here are her rules. 1. Don’t put it off. 2. Do it alone. 3. Do it a bit at a time, but over a limited period. 4. Keep the projector or whatever you are using set up. 5. Be ruthless. 6. Don’t keep multiple copies of the same thing. 7. Only keep unusual pictures of famous places. 8. Keep significant personal and family pictures. 9. Throw out the rest. And 11,000 became 460, a keep rate of 4%. Ruthless indeed.
Cambridgeshire is one of the most tree poor counties in England (apparently Surrey is the richest) and the further north one goes into the Fens so woods and hedgerows become rarer. A few do exist and are all the more noticeable, striking even, and valuable in the flatness of the reclaimed landscape. But it would be wrong to couch this in the language of lament and loss: historically the Fens were a land of water, marsh and carr that never quite completed the transition to forests. ‘Bog oak’ (a mixture of largely oak, pine, yew and other species), still ploughed occasionally from the peat, is evidence of substantial trees in the past, not unlike the fine oaks around Rampton Woods.
The Greek gods were a vengeful and devious lot: Prometheus was chained to a rock while a vulture pecked out his liver; Tantalus was condemned to stand in water, food and drink forever out of reach; Zeus disguised himself a white bull to seduce Europa and as a swan to do the same to Leda; and Salmacis got the gods to ensure that she and Hermaphroditus would never be parted by fusing their bodies as one. In happier piece of magic, Aphrodite gave Pygmalion a wife by bringing to life his statue of a beautiful woman. A student, distracted by both her mobile and a Lapith woman about to be abducted by a Centaur, seems oblivious of the approaching discus thrower.
Photo: University of Cambridge Museum of Classical Archaeology,
Of the many fascinating, strange and dramatic objects in the Museum of Classical Archaeology I think the most beautiful is the relief on the Ludovisi Throne. Probably originally part of an altar, its subject is thought to be the birth of Aphrodite. According to the myth, the goddess was born from sea foam on the beaches of Cyprus – Aphrodite’s attendants are shown standing on pebbles. However, according to the Museum’s catalogue: ‘the depiction of the birth of Aphrodite is a rare, if not unique subject in Classical art, so we cannot be sure. To show female figures semi-nude was then also unprecedented in large-scale Greek sculpture.’ The Throne was carved from Parian marble around 460 BCE; it was found in 1887 at the Villa Ludovisi, Rome. Photo: Ludovisi Throne, University of Cambridge Museum of Classical Archaeology, February 2019
This topic for the Forum came out of the discovery of Foster
Huntington’s The Burning House. This posed on-line the question, ‘If your
house were on fire, what would you take with you?’ Ninety one per cent of those replying
included photographs in the bundle of what they would rush to gather up. A survey by the Association of British
Insurers found that photographs formed the second most important category,
after money and credit cards. These
results led us to ask: ‘How did people
see themselves before photography?’ and ‘How does photography shape image and
Before photography the earliest sense of identity of self and past
generations was shaped by legends, stories, rituals, inscriptions and records. These would be complemented and reinforced by
keepsakes, souvenirs, autographs and cards.
If you were wealthy enough you might have a mirror; and for the select
few there were drawings and painted portraits.
Photography changed that forever.
Daguerre captured a figure on a plate in 1838-39; Robert Cornelius took
the first photographic self-portrait in 1839; and by 1840 portrait studios were
springing up in Europe and America. The first portraits were formal, rigid and unsmiling, due
to both the long exposures required and the subject’s apprehensions about the
novel process. People dressed for the
occasion, projecting an image of respectability, of how they wanted to be seen.
The carte de visite, an albumen print pasted on a pre-printed card, was
invented by Louis Dodero in 1851; and ‘Cardomania’ followed its use by Napoleon
III 1859. With improvements to the speed
and convenience of photography, and changing social attitudes, portraiture
became much more informal and moved out of the studio.
For the purposes of government, employers and many other organisations
photographs now define who we are. Alphonse
Bertillon invented the modern mug shot in 1888; and photo passports were first
introduced in Germany in 1915. Many of
us carry driving licenses and bus passes bearing photographs.
Photographs tell our stories: birth, school, birthdays, family
gatherings, graduation, marriage and so on.
In doing so they can become records of fashions and social change –
trips to the studio and dressing for Confirmation and first communion are
rarities today. They record our holidays
– days when the sun always shone and we were happy – and encapsulate
generations of social, economic and technological change. In this country we don’t use photography to
tell the story of death; it is much more common in continental Europe and other
Catholic countries. However, funeral
photography is increasingly being offered.
Photography is used to record and to tell our stories regardless of race
probably all have photographs of ourselves that we like and, consciously or not,
they reflect how we see ourselves in terms of gender, age, race, class,
character and environment. Increasingly,
if we don’t like what we see we can be younger, slimmer ideals through the
wonders of Photoshop. Unfortunately we
are not always in control of our image.
Even formal photographs can be unflattering, or we may be caught
unawares or we may be the victims of embarrassing moments – all the sort of pictures
that delight the media and satisfy our sense of schadenfreude. The inability to control our image might be
related to the suggested belief that photography steals souls, but this may be
more a case of scopophobia, an anxiety disorder, the fear of being seen or stared at by
The use of photography on social media takes
the idea of self-image and identity to the extreme, exemplified in the
selfie. Pictures that people post
on-line of themselves presumably reflect how they are happy to be seen – or maybe
they act for the camera in a momentary lapse in self-awareness. We can see their individual and group identities. Pictures of other subjects they post –
hobbies, interests and places visited – also reveal much about them.
Our roots are important to our image and
identity. A photograph of an ancestor
helps us to get a feeling for that person and where we have come from; when we
don’t have a picture that link is lost and the history become hazy. But photographs can trick us. When we see pictures from our early years do
we remember the events or only think we do because the photograph has made it appear
real to us. And does the photograph
become a kind of talisman, which seems to show a sort of truth, but only asks,
‘Who was I? Who am I?’ We are faced with the partiality of
Partial of not it’s the best thing we have. To go back to the beginning – it may not be just your house that’s on fire when you grab those fragments of your identity and history. (Photos of refugees and migrants are scattered on a beach at the island of Lesbos on 22 October 2015, John Liakos. From ‘The Itinerary’ project at the Alison Richard Building, 2018)
An old copy of Amateur Photographer advertises equipment described variously as ‘used’, ‘as new’ and ‘second-hand’. ‘Second–hand’ once appeared widely in small ads, on motor traders’ signs and above shops that sat somewhere between those selling antiques and those getting rid of junk, precursors of today’s charity shops. Buying second-hand was an accepted way for people on low incomes to get the things they needed or wanted. But it had always a slightly pejorative tone: ‘used’ and ‘as new’ were handy alternatives that at some point morphed into ‘pre-owned’. In an age of euphemisms and environmental sensitivity goods are now ‘recycled’ and ‘pre-loved’. Sometimes they have been loved a bit too much. Who did the pre-loving here? Photo: Parker’s Piece, Cambridge, June 2012