1,000th Post

This is my one thousandth post; the first was a picture of Southwark Bridge on 18th October 2010.  Each post has at least one photograph, some several, so well over a thousand pictures in total (including some not by me).  Early posts consisted of a photograph and a caption, later the caption has expanded into a paragraph or two and there are some extended articles, overall around 70,000 words.  Many pictures stand alone; others have been used to develop projects on travel, mannequins, the Ruckenfigur, urban ephemera and so on.  Not having set up the analytics, I’ve no idea how many people view the blog, but pictures appear occasionally on Google Images; there are 201 logged comments.  The blog continues to be loosely a visual diary; and the original aim, to show ‘Things seen; things that interest me; snaps of encounters’, remains true.

Photo: Art class, Avignon, March 2011

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Avignon, defensive letter box. Above: the Fort Saint Andre at Villeneuve-lès-Avignon built by Philippe le Bel in the first half of the 14th Century.  Below: ‘No ads* in my letterbox thank you  *Yes to the local newspaper’.

Photo: Letterbox, Avignon, March 2011

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Sundial & Shadows

The earliest sundials known from archaeological records are shadow clocks used in ancient Egypt and Babylon around 1500 BC. In about 700 BC, the Old Testament describes a sundial, the ‘dial of Ahaz’, in Isaiah 38:8 and 2 Kings 20:11. In 240 BC the Greek astronomer Eratosthenes made the first good measurement of the size of Earth. By noting the angles of shadows in two cities on the summer solstice, and using his knowledge of geometry, he made a remarkably accurate calculation of the Earth’s circumference.  In Handbook for Contemporary Photography (1977) Arnold Gassan used the degree of definition of shadows (from very sharp to no shadows) to devise a four scale film development plan that controlled the density of highlights.

Photo: Sundial, Avignon, France, March 2011

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Avignon Trompe l’oeil in 2011

‘Legendary characters stealthily occupy the city of the Popes. During your stroll in the historic city, raise your eyes: following a street, behind a window you’ll catch sight of the Prince of Homburg, Scapin, Macbeth, Marianne, Lorenzaccio, Harpagon, Antigone, Hamlet, and many others … You’ll recognize the features of the great actors who embody them and where their voice[s] still resound: Gérard Philipe, Jean Vilar, Jeanne Moreau, Daniel Auteuil, Maria Casarès, Daniel Sorano and many others like the choreographer Maurice Béjart, the mime Marceau or Bartabas and its equestrian theatre. The painted windows are made by M. Pochy et D. Durand.’

Photo: Avignon, France, March 2011

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U3AC Photo Forum 7 – What Makes a Good Picture?

Gerry Metcalfe, camera club member and photo judge of 20 plus years took the Forum through the challenges of judging.  The post on 21st July 2017 covers an earlier presentation to the U3AC by Gerry.  His views on judging? ‘It’s the image that matters.’  ‘There is nothing new in photography, so what do you look for in “originality” and “creativity”?’  ‘Don’t describe a picture as “nice”’.  ‘Ninety five per cent of judges give judging a bad name.’  ‘Judging images hasn’t changed much in my time.’  ‘You don’t have to be a good photographer to be a judge.’  ‘Judges tend to be techy, nerdy types and focus on technical quality.’  ‘It’s a thankless job.’  Thankless maybe, but necessary to feed the camera club obsession with competitions.  I can anticipate a judge’s view on the lamp post sprouting from the subject’s head in this picture.

Photo: Senate House Hill, Cambridge, June 2017

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Street Photography

Next term I shall be leading a session on street photography at the U3AC Photo Forum.  What is street photography?  Westerbeck and Meyerowitz write about: ‘…pictures of people who are going about their business unaware of the photographer’s presence.  They [street photographers] have made candid pictures of everyday life in the street.  That, at its core, is what street photography is about.’ (Bystander: A History of Street Photography, 1994)  For Howarth and McLaren it is: ‘…the impulse to take candid pictures in the stream of everyday life…in a single frame it can distil a remarkable amount of truth, showing the everyday with such wit or honesty that it will time and again amaze, delight or move us.’ (Street Photography Now, 2010)

Which of the two pictures here is an example of street photography that I might use in the session?  Both show a street (or road), are candid and show moments of everyday life with people going about their business.  Both capture relationships:  first between people cocooned in their cars and the exposed cyclist; and second between the individuals and the couples.  The latter is closer to the spirit of street photography, the people dominate; the former is more a piece of urban landscape, the buildings dominate.

Photos: 1. London Wall, London, January 2011; 2. Bury St Edmunds, September 2011

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Purls Bridge

‘Birdwatching at Purl’s Bridge with David W.  Chilly and grey punctuated with escalators of light; with occasional rain, which didn’t hurt us in the hides.  Good to be out in the air; good to chat.  Bird list: tree sparrow… kestrel… yellow hammer… lapwing… reed bunting… green woodpecker… widgeon… pochard… cormorant.’  25th January 2011

Photo: Ouse Washes, Purls Bridge, January 2011

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U3AC Photo Forum 6 – Organising Photos

Peter Hampson took us through the challenges of organising our photographs.  For many the problems start with the sheer volume of material and the diversity of formats.  Then, why do we want to organise them – for current use or posterity or both?  Assuming we can decide, we have to think about: fading and staining of prints; file degradation and bit-rot; changing technology; and back-ups and the sustainability of on-line providers.  Conclusion?  If you want to leave anything to future generations you can’t beat prints, albums, photo books and a sturdy shoe box.

Photo: Material from the Beechwoods Project in need of organising, December 2017

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Photography and Painting

It is easy to take photographs, more difficult to paint or draw, according to Andrew Marr introducing his latest publication, A short book about painting, at Ely cathedral on 6th November.  Though this is a gross over simplification, I have to admit, if only on the basis of personal experience, that it is broadly true.   The comment appears to reflect the low esteem in which Marr holds photography and denigrates it as a creative medium. In  A short book… Marr takes this further and writes disparagingly about: being ‘devoured by the digital revolution’; ‘the overwhelming wave of digital imagery’; ‘the cold digital present’; the ‘smooth lucent shine’; and ‘the omnipresent, glassy, digital effect of most modern culture’.  These criticisms surely apply more widely, but they appear to focus unfairly on photography.

Where Marr does have a point is when championing the materiality of paintings.  He argues: ‘In the end, the painter produces a painting which must work in its own right.  It must have its own bulk and identity, stand on its own feet and be the thing itself, not something “about” something.’  It’s a view close to that expressed by Lily Cole referring to the writing of Clement Greenberg (Happy Reader 9, Summer 2017): ‘…Greenberg argued that what art could do in the face of the rise of the new photographic medium was to defend what was unique to art.  To painting especially – its materiality.  That in reality, Rothko and Jackson Pollock were making an object, as opposed to an object that’s pretending to be a person or a tree.’  Marr reinforces his argument by stressing texture, ‘You want the marks to be visible…’, the importance of the surface.

In the early days of photography the daguerreotype had materiality and was a unique thing in its own right.  Later, the carte de visite was more than just a mere photograph, it was a thing with a particular social status.  The same might be said of ‘real photograph’ postcards, especially when written and posted.  The subsequent history of photography increasingly valued the fine print, that unique combination of paper coated in silver miraculously converted to subtle and rich tones.  It was a thing itself.  The decline started with the advent of resin coated paper, which no longer had the unique feel of the fibre based print.  The replacement of silver by ink in photographic printing exemplifies the advent of the digital world Marr deplores. Yet it is exactly that which is now giving photography a new opportunity ‘be the thing itself, not something “about” something’, the photo book.

Photos: 1. Daguerreotype portrait of a woman with love token and daguerreotype, ca. 1850; 2. Jonty Pentelow, Vicrage Garden, Guyhirn, 1929, photo Margaret George, silver print on fibre based paper; 3.  In Plain View – Blurb Book, July 2016

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Qal’at al Madiq

In September 2010 I was privileged to travel around Syria for two weeks.  What was an itinerary of beauty and delight – Damascus, Lattakia, Aleppo, Deir Ez-Zour, Palmyra – has become a litany of violence and cruelty.  How little we appreciated the fragility of the peace.  At Qal’at al Madiq I snatched a picture from the coach window:  a child clutching sweets to her chest runs past the red of globalised soft drinks and warily returns my intruding gaze. Seven years later the Syrian Network for Human Rights reported:

Children killed in Syrian-Russian alliance forces shelling on Qal’at al Madiq town in Hama governorate on September 20.  The girl Mirna Khaled al Jadou’ and her nephew the child Khaled Eyas al Jadou’ killed in Syrian-Russian alliance warplanes missiles fired on Qal’at al Madiq town in Hama governorate western suburbs, causing a massacre on September 20, 2017.

Photo: Qal’at al Madiq, Syria, September 2010

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Rothschild Mynah

The Christmas Fair at Waddesdon yesterday was manic.  Away from the stalls selling things I didn’t want to buy, the Electric Menagerie by Lauren Booth floated through the gardens.  ‘Booth has interpreted the Rothschild Mynah as four neon sculptures installed through the Woodland Playground. The birds are named after the famous natural historian, Walter, 2nd Lord Rothschild (1868-1937)…. who formed the largest collection of animal and bird specimens in private hands….Today the Aviary at Waddesdon houses a breeding pair of Rothschild’s Mynahs. It is a bird with a fluctuating wild population which fell to just six in 2001. In 2010, the Aviary bred four birds that were sent to their native Bali as part of a conservation project to increase the species’ genetic pool.’ (NT)

Photo: Rothschild Mynah, by Lauran Booth, Waddesdon Manor, November 2017

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U3AC Photo Forum 5 – Post Processing

Using Lightroom, Photoshop and Silver Efx, just three of the wide range of packages available, Sue Fifer and Molly Warrington showed how easy post processing is in the digital age compared with the time of silver and chemical baths.  If it involves a steep learning curve it is also cheap, quick, gives you control, is reversible and provides an almost limitless range of options.  But don’t be daunted by that huge potential, use only as much as you need to achieve the effects you want.  Just make sure to shoot in RAW if you want to get the best out of it.  The question ‘Is it really “cheating?” …….’ was left for another day.

Photo: Molly Warrington and Sue Fifer, U3AC Photo Forum, 24th November 2017

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Joan Leigh Fermor

Joan Leigh Fermor has footnotes in the history of the 20th Century as the daughter of a rich and well-connected family, as a confidante of notable literary figures and as the wife of Patrick Leigh Fermor.  Her footnotes should also include her now little-known photography: her obituary in the Telegraph in 2003 said she was ‘one of the most distinguished amateur photographers of her generation’.  Simon Fenwick has expanded the footnotes into a biography, Joan – The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fermor.  It reveals something of her photographic life, which is my main interest.


A Photographic Life

Joan Eyres Monsell was born to Sir Bolton and Lady Sybil Eyres Monsell in 1912.  She went to St James’s School near Malvern, an establishment whose ‘only lasting virtue as far as she was concerned was that it encouraged the arts… [and] there was a photography society’, according to Fenwick.  (All quotes here are from Fenwick’s biography.)  By 1930 ‘she was on the verge of becoming a professional photographer’, taking photographs of friends, society figures and people in arts and literary circles.  The biography includes pictures of John Betjeman, Cyril Connolly, Brian Howard and others.  From the mid 1930 onwards she described herself in official documents as a journalist.  She toured Ireland with Penelope Betjeman taking photographs in 1934.

Joan married John Rayner in July 1939 and adopted the professional name Joan Rayner.  In October that year the Architectural Review published a report on Pere Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, including Joan’s pictures.  In 1941 she photographed bomb damage in London, including commissions for the National Buildings Record.  Photographs of London’s Victorian cemeteries published in the Architectural Review in October 1942 appear to have been by Joan.

Joan met Patrick Leigh Fermor, Paddy, in Cairo shortly after Christmas 1944.  Taking leave in May 1945 she travelled to Iraqi Kurdistan and photographed there.   Reunited with Paddy, they explored Greece, including Rhodes and Ithaca, Joan ‘snapping shops, bars, beaches, [and] temples’.  In October 1947 Joan and Paddy, set out for the Caribbean.  ‘Joan had her camera with her everywhere she went.  When the photographs has been developed, she cut up the contact sheets and pasted the individual pictures into albums which Paddy used as aides-memoires when he was working on The Traveller’s Tree’, (his book of the Caribbean adventure).  Joan photographed the cemeteries in Guadeloupe and Haiti.

In August 1948 Joan was in France with Cyril Connolly, who had been commissioned to write a travel book about Aquitaine – Joan was to be the photographer.  ‘In her pictures [of Valance] it is as if Joan is seeing France through Connolly’s eyes – market stalls laden with fruit and vegetables, a chef with a table of game spread out in front of him….white table cloths and cutlery all ready for the customers.’  Joan wrote to Paddy, ‘I’ve taken lots of photographs but …. I have little confidence in the new camera.’  The proposed book was never published.

In early in 1949 Joan went to Sicily to take photographs for a book that Peter Quennell was writing.  Paddy and Joan were in Turkey in 1950, where she photographed ‘the abandoned monasteries and the harsh, bleak landscape in which they were situated’.  These appeared in an article ‘The Rock Mountains of Cappadocia’ (is this correct, ‘Rock Churches’ surely?) in the Cornhill magazine, c. 1950 – they were credited to Joan Eyres Monsell (Joan and John Rayner had divorced in 1947).  Joan and Paddy explored the Mani peninsular in the Peloponnese in 1951 and discovered the village of Kardamili.  ‘Joan took photographs of the skeletons of boat hulls under construction, as well as men drinking in the bar.’

In January 1952 Joan was in Dublin to take pictures for the Economic Development Administration (EDA).  She wrote very jaundiced letters to Paddy about a photographic itinerary including bogs, factories, peat moss, a drain being laid, a poultry farm, some ruins and a harbour somewhere.  She complains of ‘nearly going off my head with the horror of it all’.  Fenwick suggests that ‘the work lacked any job satisfaction whatsoever, let alone aesthetic gratification.’

In 1952 seven of her photographs appeared in Peter Quennell’s Spring in SicilyA Time to Keep Silence included four of her photographs of Cappadocia when it was published in 1957.  Mani: Travels in the Southern Peloponnese was published in 1958 with 27 photographs by Joan; Roumeli, Travels in Northern Greece was published in 1966 with 19 of Joan’s pictures.

Pictures Joan took of fire dancers in northern Greece found a publisher.  ‘A batch of dusty statues taken in a cemetery in Genoa probably did not find a buyer, despite catching Joan’s eye and imagination.  The rather wonderful oddness of a roadside junk dealer in Normandy, who sold uniformed mannequins, clearly delighted Joan, but unfortunately she does not seem to have found an outlet for their sale.’  The publication of Roumeli in 1966 is reckoned to mark the end of Joan’s career as a photographer, but it is not clear how much photography she was doing in the second half of the 1950s and the first half of the 60s.

Those are the facts of the story as Fenwick presents them.  What conclusions can be drawn about Joan as a photographer?

An Appreciation

Joan was introduced to photography at school; what she learned then and subsequently is not revealed.  She never had a darkroom and her films were processed by others.  A 1950s album page of 120 film square contact prints reproduced in the biography suggest that at that time she was using a Rolleiflex.

Joan did not exploit her elevated social position by trying to become a society or celebrity photographer.  However, her family connections allowed her to become an intimate of a circle of creative people.  In the early 1930s she met John Betjeman, who was assistant editor of the Architectural Review, and he suggested she specialise in architecture.  Her first husband, John Rayner was features editor of the Daily Express and an influential figure in the newspaper world.   Her association with Cyril Connolly, Peter Quennell and Patrick Leigh Fermor led directly to opportunities to have her work published.  In 1973 John Betjeman wrote to Cecil Beaton recommending Joan for inclusion in a history of photography that Beaton, was writing.  Despite this endorsement, when The Magic Image (Cecil Beaton and Gail Buckland) appeared in 1975 Joan was not included.

Fenwick’s biography emphasises Joan’s enthusiasm for photographing buildings, monuments and her circle of friends.  Looking at Mani and Roumeli, her subjects include landscapes, buildings, portraits and figures in the towns and rural landscapes. Her pictures in Spring in Sicily are exclusively of architectural subjects.

Fenwick makes several observations about Joan’s attitude to photography:  it ‘was a respectable means of earning a small income’; she ‘was finding a degree of independence and fulfilment in photography’; and the cemetery in Haiti was ‘enthusiastically photographed by Joan’.   These suggest that her photography had a purpose and was probably a source of pleasure.  But there is a certain casualness to it all:  she frequently refers to ‘snaps’ and ‘snapping’, as if to distance herself from grubby professionalism. Of her commission to photograph projects for the EDA, she wrote to Paddy, ‘It’s the last time I do anything like this’.  The hard graft of professional photography was not for her.

Without access to the 3000 photographs in Joan’s collection in the National Library of Scotland it is impossible for me to make a proper assessment of her work.  My evaluation is based on a limited amount of published work.

Unfortunately, Joan has not always been well-served by her publishers.  The photographs in the first edition of Mani suffer from a poor tonal range, with flat highlights and shadows lacking detail.  They have a certain 1950s charm, but do little for Joan’s reputation as being technically competent.  However, the 2017 Folio Society republication of Mani and Roumeli reveals cleaner and crisper images that suggest something of the quality that might be on the original negatives.  The photographs in Spring in Sicily were reproduced to a higher standard, reflecting better on Joan’s technique.

Joan’s photography concentrates on a conventional range of subjects suitable as editorial illustration for a range of publications.  She tackles architecture and landscape satisfactorily, with overall sound composition and brings out the essential elements of the subjects.  Among the best pictures are those where she poses and presents figures in a landscape or townscape, both subjects reinforcing each other and capturing something of the harmony between the two. There is some evidence that she had a good eye for detail and the quirky. Her portraits are largely unexceptional and can seem stiff and conventional.  She is least successful with informal documentary style pictures where she lacks the confidence and instinct required to capture the moments that shows people naturally.   Overall the impression is of a competent photographer, who has made valuable historical records of places, but not one able to get under the surface and reveal her subjects in new ways. Photographs of her friends, of the creative circles in which she mixed, evoke a particular era.

The limits to her work and her casual attitude combine to diminish Joan’s photographic legacy. Pictures thrown up by web searches, if relevant at all, concentrate of Paddy – Joan’s work from her assignments and travels is entirely absent.  Modern paperback editions of Mani and Roumeli do not include photographs.  In Fenwick’s biography two-thirds of the photographs are not by Joan, of the 17 that are two thirds are ‘snaps’ of partners and friends.


What Joan earned from photography was only ever a supplement to her private income.  She was at best semi-professional, unlike her more widely recognised contemporaries such as Helen Muspratt, Barbara Ker-Seymer and Elizabeth Tudor Hart.  Insofar as it is possible to judge from the limited amount of material available outside the archive, she was a good amateur and the Telegraph’s use of that word is justified.  It is difficult to escape the conclusion that her relative financial independence and the doors opened for her by friends, lovers and husbands reinforced a casual attitude and a failure to develop the range of skills required of a professional photographer.  Photography was not a passion.

Fenwick’s biography is an interesting and enjoyable read and provides a wealth of detail on Joan’s adventurous life.  It’s biggest failing, for me, is that it does not lead to a better understanding of Joan as a photographer – the chance to showcase her work at its best is missed completely.  As a consequence that footnote is only a minor one and Joan remains a vague, if attractive, muse to the men who so often dominate the story Fenwick tells.

Photos:  1. Joan Eyres Monsell, c. 1930;  2. John Betjeman, photo Joan Eyres Monsell, c. 1933;  3. Fountain, Piazza Pretoria, Palermo, Sicily, photo Joan Rayner, from Spring in Sicily;  4.Molithic Church, photo Joan Eyres Monsell, from A Time to Keep Silence, 1957  5. Athens street scenes, photos Joan Eyres Monsell, from Joan – The Remarkable Life of Joan Leigh Fremor, 2017;  6. The Closeness of Charon, Greece, photo Joan Eyres Monsell, from Roumeli, Folio Society edition, 2017 edition;  7. Two girls under whitewash designs, Alika, Greece, photo Joan Eyres Monsell, from Mani, Folio Society edition, 2017 edition



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Fountain Pano Kardamyli

The fountain, just outside Pano Kardamyli under the vadia, supplied the village with water until the 1960s.  Now the water is just a trickle and birds and butterflies drink from pools that gather in the shadows.  An inscription in Greek from 1734 records: ‘At the expense of Panayoiti the Troupaki his father Mikhail Paleologho and his son Petros’  It encouraged some to claim that the Mourtzinos-Troupaki tribe were descendants of the Paleologi family, the last Emperors of Byzantium – Patrick Leigh Fermor weaves an ouzo fuelled fantasy around this in Mani – Travels in the Southern Peloponnese.  Sitting on scented leaves under the silver-trunked eucalyptus, listening to the drowsy buzz of the cicadas, anything seems possible.

Photo: Fountain, Pano Kardamyli, Kardamyli, Greece, June 2010

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U3AC Photo Forum 5 – Travel

Alan Bird’s discursive 14 point introduction to travel photography: 1. Define; 2. History; 3. Key photographers; 4. Perspectives; 5. Own experiences; 6. Photographic equipment; 7. Luggage; 8. Security; 9. Travel logistics; 10. Risks; 11. Security; 12. Ethics; 13. Some of my (his) examples; 14. Reflections and conclusions.

Some issues. Home or abroad?  Holiday snaps (tourism) or considered pictures (travel)?  When does the exotic become normal?  How to travel with an open mind and leave cultural baggage behind.  When to ask permission/pay/include children?  The tyranny of distance.  Colour or B&W?  What goes on the endless checklist?

Photos: 1. Marc Riboud An engineer inside the Anshan steelworks, China 1954; 2. Freyr Stark, Al Mukulla, gateway port to Yemen, 1934

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