Anglesey Abbey – Re-imagined Images

Lord Fairhaven’s work to create a great garden in the uninspiring Fen-edge landscape at Lode was something of a magnificent obsession.  Pevsner describes the grounds as ‘embellished by much statuary skilfully disposed’, an eclectic classical collection gathered on the Lord’s travels round the world.  I’ve long been fascinated by the individual pieces and there relationships with the spaces and planting – articles illustrated with my photographs appeared in Cambridgeshire Life (1989) and the Cambridgeshire Journal (1984).  More recently, I’ve posted several photographs on this blog, e.g. 27th March 2017.

However, I think photographs of sculpture (or any work of art) pose a problem. How does the photograph add something so that it is not merely a record, a page in a glorified catalogue?  Fine photographs might achieve that end, but there is a risk that they will always fall in the long shadow of Atget.  Another approach is to see the photograph – either an original or a postcard/published illustration – as the starting point for something else that explores and interprets the subject through the inclusion of other material.  In thinking about this I’m influenced by the ‘imaginary travel’ of Joseph Cornell.  The two collages here, first attempts, are based on postcards.

Pictures: 1. Father Time Sundial, Hyacinth Garden, Anglesey Abbey, 2018; 2. Lead Lion, The Temple, Anglesey Abbey, 2018

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Talking Pictures 4 – Bill Jay

My photographic education continues: a copy of On Looking at Photographs – A Practical Guide, David Hurn/Magnum in conversation with Bill Jay (Lenswork 2000), has arrived from St Louis.  In the introduction they say: ‘Its purpose is to suggest how to look at photographs, how to understand them, how to think about them, and, as a result, how to use photography more effectively in your daily life.’  It’s a slim volume with no illustrations, so it will be words, not pictures, which will be doing the teaching in this case (and quite different from Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs).  And expensive words too, at around 70p a page – a reflection of the regard in which Bill Jay, who died in 2009, is held and the demand for his books.  The advantages and disadvantages of being dead – your work increases in value and you can’t benefit from it!

Photo: Cover On Looking at Photographs – A Practical Guide

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Talking Pictures 3 – John Szarkowski

Yesterday’s post suggested that Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs is still relevant to the way we discuss photography, but that’s not to say that everything has stayed the same.  He treats all photography as conceptual before the introduction of dry plates in the 1870s because the previous processes were so cumbersome, time consuming and prone to failure that every picture had to be planned in advance.  Each exposure aimed to capture the concept the photographer had in mind.  Where he uses the word, or implies it, in relation to later photography he is usually referring to photographers whose work involved a careful approach to previsualisation, exposure and processing, such as Ansel Adams, Arnold Newman, Paul Strand and Edward Weston.  Today the phrase is more likely to mean a type of photography that is staged to represent an idea; the concept behind the work and the process of making are more important than the finished art object.

Photo: Everton-Tempsford, Beds, July 2018

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Talking Pictures 2 – John Szarkowski

It’s 45 years since John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs was published.  I wonder how many photographers read it now (or any other critical texts on photography for that matter)?  I think he still has a lot to offer, his take on the very nature of photography, for example.  He talks about ‘pictures containing enormous amounts of precise information’ and the ability of photography to render an accurate description.  At the same time he recognises the importance of Honore Daumier’s dictum that photography can describe everything yet explain nothing.  The greatest photographers take their work beyond mere descriptions, imbue it with an expressive content and seek a symbolic role in the subject to transcend everyday narrative.  The photographer’s job is to transform the subject, not merely describe it.  The best photographs value complexity and psychological insights above the formal precision of the medium.

Photo: Dunwich Cliffs, Suffolk, July 2018

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‘Clouds were a particularly good subject for an artist like Coburn [Alvin Langdon Coburn 1882-1966] who sought the broad poetic view of things.  Granted that no two clouds are the same; nevertheless, their meanings (except to farmers and meteorologists) were sufficiently imprecise and generalized to allow Coburn to use them as abstract visual elements.  Coburn used the skies as children and poets use them, and as Leonardo used stained old walls: as an analogue model of imaginary worlds.  They provided him with an inexhaustible supply of infinitely variable forms, richer and less predictable than the images formed by his little box of mirrors.’  Looking at Photographs, John Szarkowski, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1973

Photo: Dunwich, Suffolk, July 2018


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Joan Leigh Fermor 3

Joan Leigh Fermor as a photographer, as opposed to a handmaid to male writers, has long been something of an enigma: the claims made for the quality of her work were hardly borne out by its limited publication during her lifetime.  The Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor – Artist and Lover by Ian Collins and Olivia Stewart (Haus Publishing 2018) attempts lift her from comparative photographic obscurity, to unwarp the enigma.

This handsome well-produced volume includes: 177 plates (nine in colour) showing 204 of Joan’s photographs, a short, 80 page, biography by the authors; and 30 other illustrations, some Joan’s photographs.  Eight of the plates show pictures of bomb damaged buildings in London; the majority of the other pictures were taken in and around the Greek islands and mainland with a bare handful from Turkey.  A Foreword by John Craxton (originally a 2003 obituary) introduces Joan; there is a note on technique by Robert McCabe; and some interspersed quotes from Patrick Leigh Fermor’s (Paddy) writing.  Publication coincides with an eponymous exhibition at the Museum of Greek Culture, Athens, running from 23nd May to 21st October 2018.

I tried to shed some light on Leigh Fermor’s photography in my post of 22nd November 2017.  This drew heavily on the then recently published biography, Joan – The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor, by Simon Fenwick, and concluded that, photographically, ‘Joan remains a vague, if attractive, muse to the men who so often dominate the story Fenwick tells’.  My post of 23rd June 2018 added a little more colour to the story from a recent publication and exhibition featuring Paddy and the cultural world in which he worked. The new book provides an opportunity to review previous conclusions.

A Photographic Life 3

Collins and Stewart’s treatment of Joan’s photographic life covers much of the same ground as Fenwick, sometimes giving more and sometimes less detail of her work and practice.  There are several additional elaborations of her photographic activity, however.

John Betjeman’s An Oxford University Chest was published in 1938 with photographs by Lazlo Moholy-Nagy.  According to Collins and Stewart, ‘Joan supplied four published images … best of all a soaring view over Nicholas Hawksmoor’s cupola on the High Street façade of Queen’s College.  She clearly caught the Surrealist mood then affecting the English avant-garde…’. The other three photographs are of the interior of the Divinity Schools and the Colonnade at Magdalene College.  The four are credited to ‘Miss Joan Eyres Monsell’

In August 1939 Joan travelled to Tunisia with her new husband, John Rayner, and visited her brother Graham.  Photographs of ‘traditional cave-like houses of the south Tunisian village of Matameur’ from that trip appeared in a repot ‘Unit Planning in Primitive Architecture’ in the July 1940 edition of the Architectural Review.

Joan’s photographs of ‘Chelsea Old Church, bombed’ and Zwemmer’s damaged bookshop window appeared in the June 1941 issue of Horizon.  The latter picture ‘was presented as a kind of Guernica opposite an editorial by Cyril Connolly calling for international unity against rampaging [fascist] evil’.

In 1945 Joan travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan.  Fenwick says, ‘she took photographs and made notes in her diary, which she used for writing a long account of her journey into the mountains of Rowanduz, with the apparent intention of publication’.  According to Collins and Stewart, ‘she returned that summer to Dumbleton with rolls of splendid pictures of landscapes and life in a Middle Eastern caravanserai’.  (Fenwick’s coverage of this was omitted in error from my first post.)

In a quite different vein, in May 1951 Joan was on a yacht cruising around the Aegean and the Peloponnese with Patrick Leigh Fermor, John Craxton, Thomas Hart Fisher, Ruth Page, Frederic Ashton, Costas Achillopoulos and Margot Fonteyn.  Joan’s informal and intimate photographs recorded the trip and included a beautiful study of Fonteyn lying naked on deck.  Most of these pictures were discovered only after Joan’s death.

The 1950s saw Joan and Paddy travelling around remote rural Greece.  Patrick recounted some on this, including the tale of a search for Lord Byron’s slippers in Roumeli (1966).  Joan photographed the elusive slippers, according to Collins and Stewart.

The Leigh Fermors were close friends of Lawrence Durrell and frequently visited him in Cyprus in the 1950s.  Durrell’s book Bitter Lemons (1957) records his time there during the troubled years of Enosis and the emergence of EOKA.  Collins and Stewart report that Joan illustrated the book, saying: ‘None of the photos is credited and most are minor illustrations.  One image, however soars above the rest: a crisply sympathetic portrait of the hodja (teacher) in the Mosque of Hazaret, Omer.  It has all the hallmarks of Joan’s art’.  In addition to the portrait of the hodja, there is a decent portrait of ‘Clito in his tavern’, which is consistent with Joan’s approach.  The other photographs, possibly by Joan, are eight thumbnail portraits.

Turning to equipment, Robert McCabe’s note confirms my suggestion in the first post that Joan used a Rolleiflex for much of her photography.  McCabe revives unnecessarily the old debate about 120 v 35mm formats, but the former suited Joan’s way of working and she managed the format admirably, despite her reservations stated in the earlier post.  She subsequently used 35mm – an Edixa and a Nikkormat – mainly to keep a record of building the Leigh Fermors’ famous house in Kardamyli.

Collins and Stewart put 1960 as the date when Joan stopped taking photographs, probably due to a combination of factors: no longer the need to earn extra money; effective completion of the work that contributed to Paddy’s books; and being passed over as the photographer for a book on Paris by John Russell.  However, Joan’s marriage certificate still recorded her as a photographer in 1968.

An Appreciation 3

The plates and illustrations of Greece in The Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor – Artist and Lover show her covering a wide range of subjects, including landscapes and coasts, buildings and monuments/ruins, towns and villages and markets, people at work and at rest, adults and children, and sometime curious details.  She is good at capturing buildings in their wider settings and putting them into context.  She captures the quiet unspoiled emptiness and the magical light and shade of 1950s Greece. At her best she can bring out these qualities in her portraits, though her touch is less sure.  As I have said before, you do not feel she is fully engaging when she photographs groups of people, she appears to stand back and the groups can look posed and stilted.  (Her pictures of Paddy and friends suggest what she was capable of when she was at ease with her subjects.)

In depicting that Greece of the 1950s her photographs are a significant, if partial, historical record – pictures of boat building on the beach epitomise the sense of a lost world.  She has an eye for what is important in achieving a sense of timelessness, a timelessness that follows Paddy’s vision and the tenor of his books.  She does not capture any sense of the impact of the civil war in Greece from 1944 to 1949 and its aftermath in the 1950s, however.

Her visual perception of what is important is shown in the pictures of bomb-damaged London buildings, where telling details add context and depth.  The formality of her approach contrasts with the chaos of the destruction and she captures a terrible beauty.

Joan also had an eye for a well-composed picture and had the ability to make the best use of the sometimes constraining square 120 format.  Many of the pictures in the book are presented full frame and they work very well; a few are cropped and in her published work this happened quite frequently.  Presenting the pictures as full-frame squares has a certain purity to it as that is how Joan saw them, but many would undoubtedly benefit from cropping, as the examples here show.  Apparently Joan did mark up some contact prints for cropping, but the failure to be more radical about this may be a reflection of the fact that she never printed her own work.

Leaving aside the merits or otherwise of cropping, the big advantage of the 120 format is the clarity and evenness of tone that coped so well with the light of Greece.  At the prosaic, but important level of technique, Joan managed to produce sharp accurately exposed negatives that stood up to commercial processing to maintain a good range of shadow, mid and highlight tones.  This was a significant achievement given the conditions under which she worked and the lack of any formal photographic training. The colour plates do not reach this standard and serve only to tell us that Joan occasionally used colour film (without success).

Joan, whether as Eyres Monsell, Rayner or Leigh Fermor, was not working in a vacuum.  Her career, 1934 to 1960, coincided with a rich period photographically, embodied in publications like Life (1936-72) and Picture Post (1938-1957).  So, what, if any, were the photographic influences on her?   Collins and Stewart suggest that she may have been drawn to the ‘straight’ landscape photography of Ansel Adams; and ‘If she had female role models they might have been …Berenice Abbott … Dorothea Lange and Margaret Bourke-White…’.  But there is no direct evidence for any of this.   They note that her coverage of Pare Lachaise included photographing Gerda Taro’s tomb designed by Giacometti, though this may have been coincidental rather than an act of homage to Taro.

The other photographer whose name crops up is Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, with whom she shared picture credits in An Oxford University Chest.  Simon Fenwick says that Joan went to a surrealist exhibition in Paris and to an exhibition of work by Moholy-Nagy in 1935.  Moholy-Nagy’s pictures in An Oxford University Chest are very conventional, not in the style that is normally associated with him, and Joan’s pictures do not look out of place beside his.  Despite the assertion that, in the Queen’s College picture, ‘She clearly caught the Surrealist mood then affecting the English avant-garde’ there is little in her subsequent pictures to suggest any lasting influence from Moholy-Nagy.

It seems that the greatest influences on her work were not other photographers, but the writers and artists with whom she spent most of her life.

The Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor – Artist and Lover undoubtedly helps in unwrapping the enigma and putting her on a firmer footing as a photographer.  The quality of the plates serve to prove the case that, during her lifetime, she was not well-served by her publishers in the number of pictures used, the selection of what was used and the quality of reproduction (and nor is she well-served by the low resolution images on this blog, for which apologies).  Collins and Stewart also confirm that Joan was probably her own worst enemy in treating her photography casually; and ‘she believed in his [Paddy’s] work more than she did in her own’, indeed her work in Greece appears to follow his vision rather than hers.  Moreover, like many photographers at the time, she did not enjoy the full respect of her peers as a creative artist in her own right (see post 23rd June 2018).  The show at the Museum of Greek Culture is the first exhibition of her work.  We are now able to make a better assessment of her skills and creativity as a photographer and she emerges as a more significant figure.

But we still only have partial picture, partial in both senses of the word.  The book, linked as it is to the exhibition in Athens, concentrates almost entirely on and celebrates Greece.  We still see nothing of Joan’s other photography: Ireland (at least two trips), London cemeteries, Pere Lachaise, the Caribbean, travels in France, the fire dancers of northern Greece, Iraqi Kurdistan, genoa, Tunisia.  There is much more to see; more work to be done unwrapping the enigma.

Photos:  1. Cover, The Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor, 2018;  2. Hawksmoor’s Cupola, Queen’s College, Oxford;  3. Margot Fonteyn, 1951;  4. The Hodja of the Mosque of Hazaret, Omer;  5. Delphi, Greece;  6. Tigani Peninsular, Mani, Greece;  7. Nafplio, Greece;  8. Patmos, Greece; 9. Echinos, Greece;  10.  Kitta, Mani,Greece


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Taking Pictures Revisited

On Friday J asked me why I chose monochrome for the picture of Shingle Street posted on 26th July.  That’s a very good question.  There are three parts to the answer.

First, I find Shingle Street a strange, rather haunting place, as I mentioned on 23rd July.  The feeling I get there is elusive, but it’s a definite sense of otherness.  Reducing the scene to black, white and shades of grey reflects that feeling of separateness from the everyday world.


Second, part of the strangeness of Shingle Street derives from the sense of loss at the demise of the fishing community and the replacement by a mix of holiday making and home-working lifestyles.  The upturned boat, a fibreglass dinghy, represents that.  It is the focus of attention as a solitary white object in a grey landscape; the eye and mind are not distracted by the red and green of valerian and the intricacies of the shingle bank vegetation.

Third, there is a quality to the morning light on overcast days – perhaps due to the reflective qualities of the sea and shingle and the sun in the east – that translates into very subtle and beautiful shades of grey in the monochrome range.  It deepens the space into which the viewer is drawn.  You can see this in earlier pictures of Shingle Street posted in July 2012.

I believe that converting to B&W, and some basic work to bring out the sky tones, has changed a very boring colour picture of a boat on a beach into one that says much more about Shingle Street’s sense of place.  Or at least that’s how I see it.

Photo:  1 and 2, Shingle Street, Suffolk, July 2018

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Cambridge Open Studios

The Cambridge Open Studios has grown into an extraordinary phenomenon with over 370 artists showing their work in 230 venues across Cambridgeshire through four weekends in July.  Its success prompts three questions.  Is Cambridge and the surrounding area exceptionally rich in artistic talent and if so why?  Why do all these people make the art?  Why do women dominate the list of artists, over 70% of the total?

An exchange between the two principal characters in Toledano and Nakache’s funny and poignant film Untouchable, suggests an answer to the second question.  Philippe: Tell me Driss, why do you think people are interested in art? Driss: I don’t know, it’s a business. Philippe: No. That’s because it’s the only thing one leaves behind.

Photos: Cambridge Open Studios 1. Essex Girls (Lee and Lynas),  2. Melanie Max, July 2018

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For the Birds

A bird is seen as a symbol of the soul, especially as it ascends to heaven after death, in eastern and western art, culture and religion.  The image of a bird and snake fighting represents the conflict between heavenly and earthly powers.  Individual species have been given various and multiple meanings: blackbird, the devil; crane, vigilance; crow, hope; cuckoo, unrequited love; dove, peace; eagle, sight; magpie, married bliss; owl, wisdom; peacock, pride; pelican, charity; quail, poverty; raven, Satan; swallow, Resurrection; vulture, rapacious lust; and woodpecker, heresy.  The seagull appears to have no traditional cultural meaning; today it might be associated with anti-social behaviour.

Photo: Brundenell Hotel, Aldeburgh, Suffolk, July 2018

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Talking Pictures

I’ve applied to join the U3AC Photography Forum in 2018-19.  If successful I think I shall focus my efforts on trying to improve the way the Forum talks about photography and photographs, see post 16th June 2018.  There are many critics, commentators and writers to learn from, for example Looking at Photographs, John Szarkowski (1973), On Looking at Photographs: A Practical Guide Bill Jay and David Hurn (2000) and How to Read a Photograph, Ian Jeffrey (2008).  Then there are the more philosophical writings of Barthes, Berger and Sontag.   By revisiting these perspectives, using them to both understand better the work of photographers we admire and to look critically at our own work, we might become better photographers.

Photo: Shingle Street, July 2018

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Fennel is both beautiful and useful in the kitchen; I have some growing in my garden.  Growing, but not flourishing, it amounts to no more than a few weedy stems, despite my efforts with the watering can and occasional doses of fertilizer.  That seems to be the problem.  On Friday Monty Don explained on ‘Gardeners’ World’ how fennel is adapted to hot, dry Mediterranean conditions and ‘will look good all summer long without a drop of water’.  Benign neglect is the answer.

Photo: Shingle Street, July 2017

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Shingle Street 9

Shingle Street is a strange place.  Maybe it’s the remoteness, the restless sea and the unstable shape-shifting shore.  Maybe there are ghosts too. The lost name ‘German Ocean’, remembered only in the eponymous Mansions, echoes to the fervent patriotic clamour of 1914-18.  In the Second World War the beach was heavily mined.  The civilian population was evacuated with 48 hours’ notice in 1940 and homes were requisitioned by the War Department.  The military carried out bombing trials in 1943 and the Life Boat Inn and many of the wooden cottages were destroyed.  Then there are enduring rumours of a sea on fire and a failed Nazi invasion attempt in 1940.  Today even a forest of Hoary Mulleins appears alien.

Photo: Shingle Street, July 2017

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Russian Friends

Whatever Presidents Trump and Putin are up to, relations between Britain and Russia are poor.  But that’s hardly a surprise: it’s been the historical norm for most of the past 200 years.   The two nations confronted each other in ‘The Great Game’ over Afghanistan and neighbouring territories in Central and Southern Asia for most of the nineteenth century.  Of the major powers, Britain put the most effort into the wars of intervention against the Bolsheviks following the Russian Revolution in 1917; and distrust and contention marked Anglo-Soviet relations for much of the 1920s and 30s.  The Cold War preoccupied two generations from 1945 to 1990.  But the climate was not always one of antagonism.  Britain allied with Russia and others in the War of the Sixth Coalition (1813-14) which finally defeated Napoleon; both nations fought Germany (until March 1918) in World War 1; and Russia was a key Allied Power in World War 2.  Why does it take a common enemy to bring us together?

Photo: Gibraltar Farm Barn, Tempsford, July 2017

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Gibraltar Farm Barn

Gibraltar Farm Barn, Tempsford, is a Grade II Listed Building.  The official citation is as follows.

‘Barn, later adapted to store flight equipment for Special Operations Executive agents, and now a memorial. Early-C19 with mid-C20 modifications. Concrete plinth, weather-boarded and brick-lined walls under a pitched old tile roof. 5-bay barn with central threshing entrance, that to west blocked and with Crittall windows that are also in the gable ends.’

‘INTERIOR: Concrete racks with brick partitions around perimeter formerly stored the flight equipment. To west wall, a memorial: ‘Tempsford Airfield Gibraltar Farm I Erected to commemorate the brave deeds of the men and women of every nationality who flew from this wartime airfield to the forces of the resistance in France, Norway, Holland, and other countries during the years 1942 to 1945 I The equipment for their dangerous missions was issued to them from this barn’. Roof structure comprises 4 trusses of tie beams with slightly curved braces to walls and raking struts clasped to single rows of purlins with collars. Rafters joined by ridge piece.’

‘Listed for its historic interest and as a memorial to the Special Operations Executive agents who were kitted out from this barn before flying from the adjacent runway to missions in occupied Europe.’

Photo: Gibraltar Farm Barn, Tempsford, July 2017

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I’ve just received my copy of Sparks – Adventures in Street Photography by Stephen Leslie – I subscribed to its publication through Unbound.  This can be a slightly risky way of buying books as you rely on the final publication being as good as the synopsis suggests it will be.  In this case the trust was fully justified.  Leslie accompanies each of his photographs with stories, speculations and imaginings blending fact and fiction.  He quotes Joel Meyerowitz: ‘Photography is too often about the pictures only.  To me, it’s always been about ideas and the ideas that pictures generate.’  The result is an enthralling visual and verbal cocktail that complements Teju Cole’s intriguing Blind Spot.  Leslie concludes an essay on a photograph of three dressing gown clad women outside a health club with: ‘It’s a photo that works but it is not the truth.  If anything it’s better, if slightly harsher, for being a lie.  Photography often works this way.’


Photo: Sparks – Adventures in Street Photography cover

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