I failed to admit in my previous posting that photography at Shingle Street on Sunday ended prematurely when my camera battery ran out. I took a single final shot on my phone. Lessons: make sure the battery is charged, or carry a spare, or both; a phone can be a good back-up; and if you are going to use a phone get on with a better camera than mine.
January 2019. A buffeting wind gusted in
from the west setting the reeds in the Oxley Marshes in a nonstop dance. It whined in machinery and wires; the Union Jacks
flapped and snapped, their ropes tapping against the poles; and little plumes
of spray blew from the top of waves on the incoming tide. The sky was streaked deep purply grey to blue,
fissured occasionally as the sun tried to break through. Wispy low cloud floated by against a static
looked silently shuttered for the winter.
A few lights showed and one family sat by a picture window for Sunday
lunch. Hunched figures trudged with
crunching steps over the shingle ridges; dogs picked their way warily across
the stones; and the voices of children collecting shells for the whelk line floated
away in the wind – the line still ran from the Coastguard cottages to the
shore. I sheltered in the porch of the
German Ocean Mansion.
The shingle was
bare and exposed. No summer colours of valerian, sea kale, horned poppy and hoary
mullein now, instead their dried remains, brittle brown and grey stems bending,
rustling and shedding fragments that skipped away in the wind through scant
grass. Wood pigeons and a few gulls
wheeled about, all ashy drabness.
The incoming tide lapped and sucked at the sinuous line of the spit – a sign at the car park warns against bathing due to dangerous currents – and a ridge of shingle offshore was slowly submerged. A solitary boat stood motionless out to sea.
The beach at Shingle Street has a strange new feature (new since I was there in July 2018): a steep sided crater-like depression 40-50 metres in diameter and maybe five to six metres deep. It is separated from the sea by a wide ridge of shingle. Half way down the sides the normally variegated pebbles are painted brown with a thin film of silt. The bottom is covered with a thick layer of mud and concentric arcs of green algae. There is a little standing water, probably left over from and original inlet connected to the sea – the bottom looks too high to receive water seeping through the wall at high tide. The effect is quite alien, a powerful display of hidden forces.
Tuesday 8th January 2019. The Botanic Garden was quiet; the holidays were over and sudden winter sun under ice blue skies caught people unprepared following a run of dismal days. Lunch time lovers strolled arm in arm; serious pairs walked at a measured pace in deep discussion; small groups of women took chatty lunchtime exercise, breaks from their desks and lab benches; silent figures sat on benches reading or just enjoying being in the moment. A man threw crusts to expectant fluttering gulls; and a couple photographed ducks and moorhens on the pond. The gardeners went about their work raking leaves and turning over the beds. There was no queue at the Garden Café.
The low sun sent long raking shadows across the grass creating a patchwork of light and dark giving the whole Garden a chiaroscuro macro texture. It painted a micro texture in the grass, in the variegated orange-brown carpet of leaves and in the fissured bark of the trees, soft on the sequoias, sharp on the pines and oaks. Pine resin sparkled on the wounds left by recently lopped limbs. The bareness of diaphanous willows and sky-clawing beeches contrasted with the bushy branches of the evergreens.
In the Winter Garden, suffused by the heavy scent of viburnum and winter honeysuckle, nature was confused: early January and snowdrop, primulas and hellebores were in flower and a fat bumble bee fed on the yellow sprays of mahonia. The Fen Display was stripped bare, a cold, wet space fit for winter.
The sifting of evidence to reveal more of Joan Leigh Fermor’s photographic life and legacy continues, this time through the letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor. Three volumes of letters have been published: In Tearing Haste – Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor ((TH) ed. Charlotte Mosley, John Murray, 2008); Dashing for the Post – The Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor ((DP) ed. Adam Sisman, John Murray 2016); and More Dashing – Further Letters of Patrick Leigh Fermor ((MD) ed. Adam Sisman, Bloomsbury, 2018). The first of these includes no letters to Joan, but makes passing reference to her on over 40 occasions. The other two collections include 36 letters to Joan and over 70 references to her; 23 of the letters date from the years up to and including 1960, when Joan probably gave up serious photography.
Insights into Joan’s photography are revealed through both the letters and the editors’ footnotes. Photography and related matters are mentioned in 12 of the total of 150 letters and references.
October: Paddy, staying at the Abbey de
Sainte-Wandrille, on 11th wrote
to Joan: ‘Darling, I’m afraid you wouldn’t be allowed to take photographs here,
as no women are allowed actually inside the precincts of the abbey….I would
like to write something about this abbey, though, and must try to get some
photographs from somewhere’. (DP p. 31)
Two days later he mentioned a ‘Voodoo article’, possibly for publication
in Horizon. If published, this may have included some of Joan’s
photographs from their Caribbean travels in 1947. At the end of the year Paddy wrote about a
‘Maya article’, saying, ‘I want them to reproduce a photo of the Young Corn God
and a really good Copan Stela, and the best and most representative modern Maya
faces. Contact probably won’t know which is which. Could you… help choose the photographs which
may not be labelled.’ (DP, p. 43-4) It is not clear if this refers to
photographs Joan took in British Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua
at the end of the Caribbean trip, or, perhaps more likely, to pictures by Costa
February/March: Paddy asked Joan how her
trip to Sicily with Peter Quennell and Hamish St Claire-Erskine was going –
about the relationships in the trio, not about the photography Joan was there
to do. (DP, p. 46)
May: Paddy told a story of ‘Dreamy Joan, wandering in the Palais Royal [Paris]
yesterday afternoon to take some photographs…’ to Diana Cooper. (MD, p. 61)
Spring (?): Paddy wrote to Joan: ‘Vogue
are reprinting the Jamaica article on the fifteenth of this month, which seems
odd. I hope it means extra pennies. I wish they’d do the Greek one with your
snaps.’ (DP, p. 67)
May: In a footnote Mosley describes Joan
as ‘the beautiful highbrow amateur photographer’. (TH, p. 11)
June: Paddy wrote to John Murray, his
publisher, about the photographs for Roumeli:
Travels in Northern Greece. ‘I
thought enclosed snap 546 – suggesting a bleak and blasted mountain
landscape – might do for the Dilemma [the subject of a now lost letter]. Joan has had very bad luck with her Karayiozi snaps, but we are going to try
again. What about 513, 575, and 587 for
the Cretan part? When is closing time
for photographs? Do ask Jock to use
the one of me in Cretan Outfit…if anything, slightly underdressed for this type
of snap!’ (MD, p. 202) It does not appear
in the 2017 Folio Society edition.
December: In a letter to Balasha Cantacuzene, Paddy said: ‘Our excuse for
coming to Paris was to see the enormous retrospective exhibition of Alberto Giacometti
sculptures, paintings & drawings: a wonderful feast. He died two years ago, and was a very old
friend of Joan’s and later of mine.’ (MD, p.241)
1983: A footnote records that Paddy’s translation
of George Psychoundakis’ The Cretan
Runner (1955) ‘included over a dozen photographs of the participants by
Joan Leigh Fermor’. (TH, p. 210)
December: Paddy writing about the death
of Manoli Paterakis referred to ‘Joan’s post-war photo [of Paterakis] in The
Cretan Runner’. (TH, p. 235)
Mid 1980s: A letter to American photographer Milton Grendel, who was married to Judy Montagu (d. 1972), indicates a continuing friendship, though Paddy did not mention photography. (MD, p.348) A photograph of Paddy with Anna Venetia, the daughter of Grendel and Montagu, in Kardamyli in 1969 is earlier evidence of the friendship. (DP, pl. 9)
October: Paddy wrote: ‘I was going through old papers yesterday, and came on a
colour photograph of a pretty skewbald cat of Joan’s, fast asleep with its head
on an open copy of Kim…and Joan’s
specs across it too…It marvellously composed, an ideal vision of an afternoon
nap, with the heroine of the scene, vis Joan momentarily off stage.’ The photograph, reproduced in black and white,
is almost certainly by Joan. (TH, p.
The three books include 92 photographs from Paddy’s life, a few include Joan, who was notoriously shy in front of the camera. A number of the pictures are by Joan, but only two are expressly credited to her, several other photographers are credited.The value of these letters in understanding Joan Leigh Fermor, photographer, is limited: they represent a tiny proportion of the nearly 10,000 letters postcards and telegrams in the Leigh Fermor archive; they are only one side of the correspondence; and the editors have selected them for their general, historical, literary, social and topographical, not photographic, interest. The selections are partial in both senses of the word. Nevertheless, they do provide some insights.
Paddy shows little interest in Joan’s photography, except insofar as it relates to his own work. He does not ask her how her work is going.
He refers to Joan’s photographs as ‘snaps’ (1952 and 1965). This sounds dismissive of the value of photography, and to modern ears it is. It might be excused as a reflection of time and class, but hardly – photography had long since been taken seriously.
Mosley’s description of Joan as ‘the beautiful highbrow amateur photographer’ expresses perfectly the way in which she appears to have been seen by her contemporaries – beautiful first, photographer last.
I’ve learned that: Joan was photographing in Paris in 1952; her photographs illustrated the translation of The Cretan Runner; and Giacometti was a friend, also probably Milton Grendel.
The problems with the Karayiozi photographs may indicate Joan’s technical limitations. The photograph published in Roumeli is of a cut out puppet, not of a shadow puppet performance.
The winter solstice, the 24-hour period with the fewest daylight hours, is no longer celebrated by most people: the observance of Christmas has replaced its mystical pagan significance for Christians; and the season of shopping, partying and excess has swept away all other considerations for the rest. This year the precise point of the winter solstice in the Northern Hemisphere was at 22:23 on Friday 21st December, a moment illuminated by an exceptional cold moon. How then to honour this event amid the last minute preparations to meet familial expectations of Christmas? A trip to Snettisham in the hope of watching the sun rise on the alternative New Year and the expectation that skeins of wild geese would welcome a new day.
The cold moon, veiled sometimes by wisps of cloud, illuminating the Fens up to Kings Lynn and became an occasional companion behind the woods and hills of west Norfolk through Sandringham. At the RSPB car park in the pre-dawn gloom the gentle ‘yeebing’ of mallard on broke the silence. East towards Dersingham pale streaking in the sky was a hint of dawn. The Access Trail, sheltered between hedges runs alongside a gravel pit; on the other side the impermanent looking homes along Snettisham Beach were dark and silent. The path rises up on a bridge and causeway between two pits to the embankment along the beach, revealing the wide sweep of the Wash stretching away to winking lights from King’s Lynn to Skegness. It was low tide and the piping of waders and the ‘wink-wink’ contact calls of geese drifted in on a chilly breeze from the great expanse of muddy flats and creeks. Hundreds of thousands of knot, dunlin, oystercatchers and godwits winter there; and during winter months up to 40,000 pink-footed geese from Iceland and Greenland make it their home.
A lone birdwatcher warned that there were unlikely to be big flocks of geese coming in to feed on the fields – during the full moon many are already inland feeding at night. Patience and hope were rewarded though. In the distance the muted chattering of the geese rose to a sonorous clamour and flocks took to the sky and wheeled in noisy ragged chevrons over the embankment and headed into Norfolk. A low flying party came directly overhead, the rustling of wind in their primaries mixing with their ‘ung-unk’ calls.
East, over Dersingham the pale streaks in the sky lightened slowly and turned orange. Pale sunburst rays reached up towards slaty clouds and the horizon turned to vivid white and gold. West across the Wash the sky was subtle pink and grey above a steely landscape of mud and looping ponds. The sun, breaking free of the horizon and clouds, illuminated the shimmering, flickering flight of a flock of lapwings as they performed their aerial disappearing act. Cloud angels of infinite variety filled the sky. Solstice magic.
I’ve bought a copy of Drained by Paul Hart (Dewi Lewis 2018), photographs of 40 or so Fen landscapes in muted monochrome. The flat peaty fields lie under sombre skies as dykes, pylons and roads lead out to distant horizons. Buildings, where they exist, are isolated and shuttered, it is a land almost bereft of people. An ironic desertion: this landscape in product of human ingenuity, of unending drainage dating back to the Seventeenth Century. Hart focuses on the land’s formal, artificial, construction. In his introduction to Drained, Francis Hodgson writes of the Fens as ‘alien, mysterious’, ‘foreign’ and ‘melancholy’. My fenscapes tend to be more upbeat – clouds may have a certain mystery, but they are joyous or dramatic rather than melancholy.
Five members of the Forum spoke about a favourite landscape photographer. Jitka Brynjolffssen introduced Justin Mimms, a contemporary landscape photographer, who makes atmospheric images of East Anglia. David Brown went back in time to talk about the work of Liverpool based photographers Edward and Margaret Chambre Hardman, townscapes and some unfamiliar landscapes. Alan Bird cast his net wider to include Richard Muir, Ansel Adams and Fay Godwin; comparing their work with some of his own, he asked unanswered questions about what a landscape photographer’s reputation rests on. Natalia Pearson showed the spectacular pictures of spectacular places by Ukrainian photographer Yevhen Samuchenko.
I chose John Blakemore. Using 12 pictures, I explored his landscape work through five aspects: the ‘three Rs’ (Relationship, Recognition, Realisation); capturing natural processes; focusing on details; developing sequences; and the sombre image as a lament for the landscape and a reflection of Blakemore’s inner angst. JB has a mantra: ‘What is the nature of this invisible thing called light whose presence calls everything into view – except itself?, (Catching the Light, Arthur Zojanc). His photographs aim to transcend the subject and become about light.
Photo: Rockpool, Froig, North Wales, 1970s, John Blakemore
The project for the term was agreed in November. The brief was: photographs of any and all kinds of reflections accepted; should be mainly current photos, i.e. taken between 9th November and 9th December; archive photographs can be submitted; and a maximum of three current pictures and one from archives per person.
Eighteen members of the Forum submitted a total of 49 pictures in five categories: windows (14), water (13), mirrors (4), ‘creative’ (9) and archive (9). The subjects reflected included birds, buildings, chains, decorations, lights, people and trees. The locations ranged from Amsterdam to Cambridge, Prague to Porto and Tokyo to Vienna.
Some images were open to easy to understanding. Others defied interpretation, especially where the picture had been flipped or inverted to enhance the mystery. Tim’s Blade Runneresque Ukiya – The Floating World captured best the strange other world of the reflection. Those who used Photoshop to create the effects missed the point of the exercise. See all submissions at www.zimbushboy.org/photo-forum-2018-19
Photo: 1. 1815 Café Bar, Cambridge, November 2018; 2. Mill Road Winter Fair, Cambridge, December 2018; Round Church Street,Cambridge, December 2018
Until a few months ago my mental image of Sleaford was shaped by crawling through the town centre on the A15 to Lincoln – so, an outdated picture as a bypass opened in 1993. Circumstances mean that I’m now getting a relaxed view of the town and becoming aware that it has more about it than the scene of traffic through the car window allowed. There’s the medieval church of St Denys (apparently a composite saint), the 18th century Sleaford Navigation and the National Centre for Craft & Design, to name just three things worth exploring.
Apart from Tesco, McDonalds and the leisure centre, my introduction to Sleaford so far has included a walk to view the outside of the Bass Maltings, sitting like some great fortress by the railway a short distance from the town centre. Built between 1901 and 1907 in red brick and Welsh slate to designs by Herbert A. Couchman, the maltings are the largest group of malt houses in England. Listed Grade II*, the Pevsner for Lincolnshire enthuses that, ‘for sheer impressiveness little in English industrial architecture can equal the scale of this building.’
The introduction of more efficient malting techniques at Bass’s other plant led to the closure of the maltings in 1959, since when they have had a sad and confused history, the home for failed uses and the subject of unrealised (unrealisable?) ambitions – a fire in 1976 caused severe damage to three of the malt houses. Elsewhere, somewhere more prosperous, apartments, cafes, bars, galleries, offices and workshops would ensure the building’s future and bring it back to life. For now, pigeons are the beneficiaries of its dereliction.
Nick Kerry used artists as diverse as Leonardo de Vinci, Rembrandt, John Swannell and Cecil Beaton to illuminate his session on Friday. The aim of the portrait, he said, is to capture the personality; pictures may be formal or informal, static or dynamic. Concentrating mainly on formal portraiture he looked at the practicalities of pose, clothing, lighting, and background (and related depth of field). These, and possibly the inclusion of props, can be used to introduce symbolism into the portrait. The question of whether casual snaps can be considered as portraits was left hanging. See Nick’s presentation at www.zimbushboy.org/photo-forum-2018-19
Broadstairs is five or six minutes from Margate by train, an hour and five minute walk by road or a just over two hour stroll along the coastal path. In other words not far at all physically. But it seems a world away socially and economically. The High Street is well-maintained, the shops are occupied, they offer choice and they look prosperous, so unlike the case study in decline that is Margate. Houses have an air of homes occupied by people who care and holiday flats are advertised with pride.
Broadstairs harbour is a good timber example of its kind; the Promenade and Victoria Parade, overlooking the pretty bay, embody gentle 19th century elegance; Morelli’s ice-cream parlour is a joyful Art Deco survivor; and the town treasures its Dickins connections. There is little of the seaside tackiness of Margate, nor the misconceived and misplaced redevelopment. Broadstairs was able to stand in for Margate in Mike Leigh’s film Mr Turner. The one obvious blot is the derelict funicular railway built in 1910 by Messrs R Waygood and Co – a restoration in 1991 was undone almost immediately by a storm.
The Crampton Tower, which welcomes visitors by train and road, is a robust survivor. Grade II listed the citation states: ‘A water tower dated 1859. A circular tower, 3 storeys high faced with flint and having rough flint dressings and stringcourses. Crenellated parapet. Brick moulded cornice and band of blank arcading picked out in rough flints with blank panels of knapped flint between. Round-headed windows.’ It was designed by Thomas Russel Crampton, who is now remembered, if at all, as a designer of locomotives and of railways, The tower houses a museum, including ‘7 working model railways in gauges N,OO,O and Gauge One’. Dreamland does indeed seem a world away.
Photos: 1. Broadstairs railway station, October 2018; 2. High Street, Broadstairs; October 2018; Crampton Tower, Broadstairs, October 2018
‘A Syrian refugee burns a raincoat to warm himself at a refugee camp, at the border between Greece and FYROM: 12 March 2016 near the village of Eidomeni, Greece. Yannis Kolesidis’ The caption on a photograph in the exhibition ‘The Itinerary’ at the Alison Richard Building (ARB). On 12 March 2016 I was enjoying a very good birthday lunch with friends at The Anchor, Sutton Gault
Publicity for the exhibition explains its origins. ‘Eleven photojournalists have followed the trek of refugees from their point of origin – the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa – into Europe through the various stopover sites in Greece and the Balkans. The photographs in this exhibition document the refugees’ unimaginable struggles on their way to safety but also their routine, everyday activities and small moments of joy. Covering some of the distance between refugees and us, the photographs remind us that these are ordinary people on an extraordinary journey. They also make the viewer party to the experience and perspective of these eleven eyewitnesses to a great humanitarian disaster.’ A book published by the team contains the complete collection of photographs.
Some of the contributors spoke about their work at the ARB on Monday. A few phrases summed it up for me. ‘Who is a refugee? A human with a name.’ ‘….capturing human grace…’ ‘Little is needed to protect or destroy.’ ‘Cold violence: discrimination, marginalisation, neglect.’ ‘Photography, a universal language?’ ‘Photographers are intruders.’ ‘Some images make the situation personal.’ ‘The pictures don’t need to dramatise – it’s dramatic enough already’
Another caption. ‘Photos of refugees and migrants are scattered on a beach at the island of Lesbos on 22 October 2015. John Liakos’ It’s the burning house questioned in extremis.
Photos: 1. Syrian Refugee, Eidomeni, Greece, Yannis Kolesidis 2012; 2. Photos of refugees, John Liakos 2015
‘Virginia Woolf: An Exhibition Inspired by Her Writings’ at the Fitzwilliam is a treat, even if you don’t think much of her literary style or content. Drawing on work by over 80 artists from the mid-19th Century to today, it explores different takes on ‘landscape and public life; domesticity and the home, and the private self and subconscious’. A bonus, and something of a surprise (though why should it be?), is the inclusion of several women photographers (or artists working with photography), from Anna Atkins and Julia Margaret Cameron to Calude Cahun and Gisele Freund to Penny Slinger and Zanele Muholi. Some new to me, revealing significant gaps in my photographic knowledge. Into Heffers to get a copy of Women Photographers – From Julia Margaret Cameron to Cindy Sherman by Boris Friedenwald.
I’ve mentioned before (17 March 2017) the rather surreal results of listing the media used to create art works. This mixed show provides a particularly rich catalogue of materials: acrylic paint, acrylic nails, album, albumen print, aluminium sheet and rod, ash, automotive paint, ballpoint pen, beads, board, body colour, bone, brass, bricks, bronze, cabinet card, canvas, carbon print, ceramic, charcoal, collage, coloured pencil, compressed lint, concrete, cosmetics, cyanotype, diamante, digital print, dress fabric, earthenware plate with tin glaze, earth, ebony, fabric, faux fur, felt, film 16/8mm, found object, frames, gauze, gelatin, silver print, gesso, glass, gorse plant, gouache, granite, graphite, GWR boxes, hardboard, HD video, horn, ink, kneaded eraser, lace, latex, lead, leather, Lycra, marble, MDF, metal, mirrored steel, nail varnish, oil paint, panel, paper, pastel, peacock feather, pencil, Perspex, photograph, photo collage, pigment, pigment print, plaster, plastic, plexi box frame, Polaroids, postcard, print, polyester resin, printed linen, PVC, quilting cotton, rag paper, satin, sea shells, shelf, silicone, silk thread, silver, steel, stones, tea, terracotta, [railway] track, umatic tape, velvet, watercolour, Wedgewood teapot, wood and ‘other materials’. Is listing the media supposed give a work authenticity and gravitas?
Photos: 1. Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait (as weight trainer), c. 1937; 2. Sara Barker, soil knotted like toppled alphabets, 2016
Monica Sommereux chose Charles Trenet’s La Mer to start her choice of music at last week’s U3AC Music Club. He sings of how the ‘dancing’ sea ‘shimmers with silver’, of the sky as an ‘infinite azure shepherdess’, of the ‘big wet reeds’ and ‘white birds’. Finally, how ‘….with a love song/The sea/Has rocked my heart for life.’ In verse two there is a line that sheds a happy light on national differences in metaphors: he sings of ‘ses blancs moutons’, for us they are white horses.
There were no white horses at Margate when we visited, though the sea shimmered and white birds fed in the pools left by receding tides. The allure of the sea was still there: the freshness of the air and salt on the lips; the smell of the shore and the gentle susurrus of the wavelets; the endlessly varied ripples in the sand crossed by paw, foot and hoof print; chalky whelk shells and green-brown drifts of seaweed harbouring strange liminal life; and the distant horizon beyond the ships waiting, mysteriously anonymous off shore. Look, small, touch and taste – a beach is never boring.