U3AC Photo Forum 2018-19 15: Photography – Image and Identity

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 identity?’

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 and class.

We 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 others

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 photography.

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)

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Galanthus ‘Magnet’,

Galanthus peshmenii,

Galanthus ‘Merlin’.


Galanthus ‘James Back-

house, Galanthus nivalis

‘Anglesey Abbey’.

Photo: Botanic Garden, Cambridge, February 2019

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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

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Karl Parsons

Search on-line for ‘My bath has two silver taps’ and you will learn more that you will ever, ever need to know about silver taps, but you won’t be led to the poet who used it as a first line.

The Stained Glass Museum in Ely Cathedral has several windows by Karl Parsons for example, St Columba and Christ the Good Shepherd from the church of St Michael, Sulhamstead (1913). Parsons (1884 – 1934) worked in an Arts and Crafts style and is noted for his draughtsmanship and fine derailing, the richness of his colours and his ability to render on glass fabrics that look velvety to touch.  His art is little-known outside the stained class world and he is probably even less well-known anywhere as a poet.  In 1929 the Medici Society published a collection of his whimsical childrens’ poems under the title Ann’s Book, illustrated by his daughter Jacynth.

My Bath

My bath has two silver taps,

And a hole, and a silver chain,

And a toast-rack, for the soap and sponge

When you put them back again.

And a Gurgling Noise in the drain.

If you tread on the Gurgling Noise, your toe

Sticks so tight that you can’t let go.

Hammer and Tongs

O hark to the haut-boys, give ear to the gongs,

That sound for the Tourney of Hammer and Tongs

The clang-tankerous sound to which everyone throngs…

(From a comic poem by Parsons, possibly a parody of ‘I hear along our street’ (Dunster Carol))

A Pity

The birds are not friendly with Cat –

And it isn’t much wonder they aren’t!

I wish I could alter just that

Of the thousands of things that I can’t.

The birds are such darlings and Cat is so sweet,

But everything seems sort of made on a slant –

What about me liking chicken to eat?

Photos: 1. Ann’s Book; 2. Christ the Good Shepherd; 3. Hammer and Tongs; 4. St Columba

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Carre Arms, Sleaford

Lunch at the Carre Arms on Saturday – cheese soufflé, salad and a glass of wine.  Wikipedia gives a potted history of the Carres

‘During the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the Hussey family owned the manor of Old Sleaford. John Hussey, 1st Baron Hussey of Sleaford was executed for treason for his part in the Lincolnshire Rising. The manor and his residence at Old Place reverted to the Crown and were later sold to Robert Carre.  George Carre or Carr from Northumberland had settled in Sleaford by 1522 when he was described as a wool merchant.  His son Robert bought Hussey’s land and the castle and manor of New Sleaford from Edward Clinton, 1st Earl of Lincoln.  His eldest surviving son Robert, founded Carre’s Grammar School in 1604, and his youngest son Edward was created a baronet; his son founded Sleaford Hospital in 1636. The last male descendent died in 1683 and the heiress, Isabella Carre, married John Hervey, Earl of Bristol, in whose family the estates remained until the 1970s. The Carres and Herveys had a strong influence: in addition to extracting dues from their tenants, they took leading tradesmen to the Exchequer Court to gain legal force behind their monopoly on charging tolls on market and cattle traders and for driving animals through the town.’

A grabbing lot the later Carres, it sound as if they followed neither the letter nor the spirit of the sign on the wall outside.

Carre Arms, Sleaford
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U3AC Photo Forum 2018-19 14: Patterns

Nick Kerry ran today’s session on patterns.  He suggested that photographing patterns both helps us to see at things in different ways and reflects a natural human urge to seek structure.  Using 30 pictures from 45 submitted, he looked at the topic through five broad headings: architecture, arrangements, nature, structures and ‘one offs’.  Subjects spanned fur to frost and wine cellars to swimming pools; locations ranged from Tokyo to Hunstanton and Transylvania to the Isle of Wight.  Pattern types included abstraction and formality, symmetry and asymmetry, order and disorder, randomness and disruption.  Sometimes the patterns defied interpretation and sometimes there were pictures within pastures.  A few achieved the trick of evoking a completely different subjects – a building a microchip, roof trusses a whale’s skeleton. My photos below.

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North Fen, Cottenham

Repeat postings of photographs of Great and Little North Fens, Cottenham, on this blog can be explained in part by the fact that I walk there fairly often.  But that’s not the only thing.  I’m fascinated by the fen landscape in general, its feeling of space, its graphic qualities and its sense of being on loan until the waters return.  In the North Fens the space is given emphasis by the flat, empty fields.  There are few vertical features so the eye is drawn outwards and upwards, it is skyscape and cloudscape as much as landscape.

If this is the case, do the pictures have to be landscape, or can they work in portrait format?  These two photographs illustrate the difference (they are from separate frames, the second in not simply a crop of the first).  The portrait picture certainly takes the eye up into the sky and emphasises the height.  But it feels unnatural: our binocular vision gives us a much wider horizontal than vertical angle of view.  In other words we see in landscape.    Portrait format landscapes may be successful in places with strong vertical features, such as buildings, trees and mountains, and where a flat feature, such as a road or river, is turned into a vertical motif through framing to use point perspective.  It’s not often the right approach on the North Fens, however. Photos: Little North Fen, Cottenham, February 2019

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U3AC Photo Forum 2018-19 13: Morality and Controversy in Photography

Helen Cherry approached this under three broad headings: fake photographs; shocking photographs; and controversial art photographs.  She took us from the Cottingley Fairies through the work of a wide range of photographers, including Robert Capa, Mikhael Subotsky, Eddie Adams, Nick Ut, Irina Ionesco, Diane Arbus, Joel-Peter Witkin, Jill Greenberg and so on.  She asked questions posed by these pictures. Is it right to take them?  Should they be published?  Do the subjects have a right to anonymity? Do they change history or are they merely to shock?  Do the ends justify the means?  What price is paid by the photographer? Photo Irina Ionesco

There was much debate and a lot of issues were left hanging.  But there was some consensus on the following. 1. The context for the pictures is vital in understanding them.  2.  It is important to respect the subjects.  3. Turning pictures of exploitation and suffering onto art object on a gallery wall is wrong.  4. Photography reveals what’s happening and society can’t claim it doesn’t know if it does nothing.  5. The art based photography raised mixed feeling – I found some of it (Irina Ionesco and Jill Greenberg) distasteful, but couldn’t make a final judgement without knowing what the photographers had in mind. Photo Jill Greenberg

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Rampton Rectory and All Saints

Ivy and bramble have taken over the old Rectory at Rampton; fatal cracks run down walls that are falling apart.  It was built in yellow brick under a Welsh Slate roof sometime between 1855 and 1862 – a rambling pile suited to a Rector with a large family and a bevy of servants. The Church sold it in 1982 and it opened as the Old Rectory Care Home in 1983. The Home closed in 2000 and it has been left to rot ever since.  The drive alongside leads to All Saints, sitting quietly amid graves and trees.  Its history goes back to around 1090, with changes and additions up to the 18th Century – it’s the only thatched church in Cambridgeshire still in ‘regular’ use.  Light leaks in through a hole in the roof.  There is no Rector now: Kylie Hodgins, the Priest-in-Charge, shared with Cottenham, ministers here at infrequent services.  All Saints tells the story of the CoE over the past 160 years.

Old Rectory, Rampton, Cambs
Old Rectory, Rampton, Cambs
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Edward Burne-Jones

It’s plain that The Guardian’s art Critic, Jonathan Jones, did not like the Edward Burne-Jones exhibition at Tate Britain:  ‘Almost everything else in the exhibition is art that disdains life.’ and ‘Burne-Jones proves how boring beauty can be.’ (22nd October 2018).  It’s easy to see what he means: all those vapid, etiolated, interchangeable figures reclining or drooping about in some kind of pure Arthurian reverie.  This from a contemporary of Degas, Manet and Gaugin, who was painting in a period that overlapped Impressionism and Post-Impressionism.

But there are things to make the trip down to Millbank worthwhile.  The room of portraits is a relief from the acres of allegory.  Despite his tendency towards a pale and enigmatic beauty, Burne Jones shows his subjects as individuals with inner feelings and largely eschews social status.  His undoubted skill as a draughtsman is also displayed in a series of tender, beautiful and exquisite pencil sketches made in preparation for the big exhibition pieces. Sadly the transfer is rarely an improvement: a mischievous upturned head becomes the knowing face of the mermaid in ‘The Depths of the Sea’.  Throughout I’m impressed by Burne-Jones’s technical skill (and I’ll admit to being impressed easily by such things), not least the ability to make water colours look like oils in his early work.  But, as Jonathan Jones wrote, ‘What Burne-Jones needed, apart from a slap in the face with a wet fish, was to read more Oscar Wilde.’

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Wildlife Photographer of the Year

This gallery contains 3 photos.

I visited the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum on the 22nd.  Wonderful pictures of wonderful things; and tragic pictures of tragic things.  All are tributes to technical mastery with sophisticated equipment, no doubt.  More … Continue reading

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RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch

I did the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch at 116 on Monday 28th.  The count was: blue tit 2, great tit 2, blackbird 2, dunnock 2, robin 2, starling 1, jackdaw 2, jay 2 and magpie 2 – 17 birds of 9 species.

I’ve done the count annually since 2006. The numbers vary from year to year – the best year was 2006 with 18 birds from 10 species, the worst 2014 with 9 birds from 6 species.  The average is 14.3 birds and 8.6 species.  There has been no consistent trend in total numbers up or down over the 14 counts. 

I’ve recorded 21 species during the count since 2006.  The blackbird in the only one to be present every year, followed by dunnock and robin with 13 records each, wood pigeon 12, blue tit 11 and collared dove 10. Six species have occurred only once: blackcap, fieldfare, great spotted woodpecker, greenfinch, coal tit and jay.  Others recorded include house sparrow 2, wren 2, long-tailed tit 2, song thrush 3, jackdaw 5, magpie 5, chaffinch 6, starling 7 and great tit 8.  I’ve seen a wider a wider range of species in the garden outside the RSPB survey, from heron to carrion crow and goldcrest to red-legged partridge.

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Cheltenham Bubble Clock

The Bubble, or Wishing Fish, Clock was designed by Kit Williams in 1985 as the centrepiece for the Regent Arcade in Cheltenham. The clock’s mechanism was built by Michael Harding.  Fourty-five feet tall, it is said to be the tallest mechanical clock in the world.  The clock is the roost of a goose forever laying eggs and home to a family of mice trying to escape a snake. A large fish hangs from the base and blows bubbles every half-hour, to the strains of ‘I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles’.  It’s more fun, but less sophisticated, than the scary Chronophage in Cambridge.  Both share one essential quality: they are useless for telling the time.

Cheltenham Bubble Clock
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U3AC Photography Forum 2018-19 12: Photobooks

Margaret Kerry led a session of the Forum on ‘Why Photobooks?  Well why not?’ on Friday 25th.  She explained how she used CEWE software to produce several books in different styles and formats.  For the uninitiated she explained the choices to be made about: size, format, layout, paper, binding, typeface, and page colour and background.  Others in the group used alternative programmes like Blurb and PhotoBox.  An important area of discussion was whether to use pre-formatting or custom designs that allow greater creativity (I used the latter for books below).  Margaret made a persuasive case for photobooks: they are fun to do; help to pare down the archive; are a great way of sharing pictures and to tell a story; and they fill a short and long term social role by replacing the ‘disappearing photo album.’

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Joan Leigh Fermor 5

My post of 3rd January 2019 referred to the inclusion of photographs by Joan Leigh Fermor in Paddy’s translation of George Psychoundakis’ The Cretan Runner (1955).  The book has been reprinted in hard back and several paperback editions; the Folio Society published an edition in 2009.

The 1988 reprint of the 1978 paperback has 14 photographs credited to Joan.  These include six head and shoulders portraits, two full length portraits, three village scenes and three landscapes.  The Folio edition includes 10 of the same pictures, some with a slightly different crop, and an additional picture of PLF with Manoli and Vardi Paterakis.  The best of the portraits, e.g. Nikoli Alvizakis, George Psychoundakis and Father John Alvizakis, are relaxed and well-composed, with the low viewpoint dictated by the photographer’s Rollei giving them a nobility suited to the participants in the extraordinary events chronicled in The Cretan Runner.  Some of the other portraits are stiff by comparison.  The landscapes capture well the ruggedness of the terrain over which the resistance campaign was conducted.

The quality of the printing in the 1988 reprint is variable, at its best quite acceptable, but too often being either too contrasty or too flat.  The Folio edition prints are generally better.  A few of the pictures and others taken at the same time are included in The Photographs of Joan Leigh Fermor Artist and Lover (Haus 2018) and show the rich range of tones Joan was able to achieve in her photography.  The Cretan Runner reveals again how poorly she was served by her early publishers. The credits in the Folio edition say ‘All photographs courtesy of Patrick Leigh Fermor.’  I think that’s a discourtesy to Joan Leigh Fermor.

Joan Leigh Fermor, Patrick Leigh Fermor, Manoli and Vardi Paterakis, Crete
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