U3AC Photo Forum 2 – Looking at Pictures

Today’s session was about understanding, interpreting and enjoying photographs.  Everyone brought along a photograph for discussion by the Forum.  Some presented work of their own; others offered pictures by known photographers, including Paul Strand, Andre Kertesz and Laura Pannack.  The discussions were shaped around: a description of the picture; the formal qualities (composition, viewpoint technique etc.); and figurative and discursive meanings.  The photographs that told or evoked stories got the strongest reactions.  Issues for future sessions included: consent; image manipulation; and photography as art.

Photo: Laura Pannack

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Fenscape 30

Walked along the Great Ouse from the Lazy Otter this morning.  Mild; distant Fen horizons lost in the mist, trees and barns given an impressionistic wash, faint tractor lights like occasional lighthouse blinks.  Underfoot the grass wet and decorated with snails in endless striped colour variations, probably Helix nemoralis Linnaeus.  Edible?  Perhaps by song thrushes.  On the river, coot and moorhen, and great crested grebes, an adult and two incessantly calling juveniles.  Warm lights showing from narrowboat windows.

Photo: Chear Fen Farms, Streatham Cambs, October 2017

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U3AC Photo Forum 1 – Introduction

Tim Ewbank has taken the initiative to run a photography Forum for the Cambridge U3A.  Canvassed about the purpose of the Forum before the start of term, 47% of those who signed up said that improving their photographic technique was essential/important and 26% said it would be nice.  Interest in understanding photography as an art form was the mirror image of this, 26% essential/important, 47% it would be nice.  The first meeting of the Forum recognised the importance of combining both approaches – understanding great photography can improve personal work.

Photo: Regent Street, London, October 2017

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Beechwoods Fungi

Friday 18th August 2017.  ‘Early morning walk in the Beechwoods.  Bright and sunny, but cool; the wind made the sound of surf in the treetops.  Greeted by the laughing call of a green woodpecker – the signature sound of the woods?  Parts of the woods where the trees are close together and there is a significant under storey were dark and slightly forbidding.  The open woods retained the welcoming palette of light and shade; and large toadstools with rough biscuit coloured caps pushed through the mast and leaf litter.  I couldn’t identify them’.  Saturday 26th August 2017.  ‘The fungi noted on the 18th were giving off an unpleasant, fishy smell.’

Photo: Beechwoods, Cambridge, August 2017

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Beechwoods Lore 1

‘Beech groves have been found in and near important places of power; Avebury and Cerne Abbas to name two. They maybe have been used for food as much as their majestic presence. They have been said to have inspired the building of Cathedrals; the high vaulting arches mimic the high arching branches of the Beech Grove. Beech is thought of as The Mother of the Woods. Beech is also known as the Beech Queen who’s consort is the Oak King.’  From ‘Tree Lore’, The Order of Bards Ovates & Druids

Photo: Beechwoods, Cambridge, October 2017

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Barrington Cement Works

The chimney for Barrington Cement Works is a landmark for miles around, a sign that Cambridge is near for those travelling by road and rail.  It’s also a historical signifier for a village notable otherwise only for its ‘enormous green’ and ‘big church’.  The cement works and quarry were established in 1918 and known as ‘The Dreadnought Portland Cement Company’.   The Barrington Light Railway was opened in 1927 to link the works to the London – Cambridge line. The plant was extended in 1962 and an internal railway system was built to haul chalk and clay from the quarry faces.  By 2005 the internal railway was decommissioned as it was no longer economically viable – at the time of closure it was the last mineral railway in the UK.  The site was closed in 2012.  It is now the subject of proposals for land restoration and building 220 homes.  Perhaps the chimney will be kept – a memorial to a collective experience that will become fragmented memories.

Photo: Barrington Cement Works chimney, October 2017

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I don’t know how environmentally friendly balloon flights are – a lot of fuel is burnt, recovery vehicles trundle around and the burns are noisy, if short.  But it does seem to be the ultimate in slow tourism, a leisurely way to see places from a unique perspective.  And a balloon, a small world of its own, floating over towns or empty places has a romantic beauty bringing to mind Phineas Fogg in a distant age of tourism.

I had never thought to put them in the same category as cheap flights and giant cruise ships, carriers of the tourism blight to sensitive places.  David Horan has shared on Facebook this picture of Cappadocia, Turkey, which might make me change my mind.  Romantic beauty is replaced by an impression of alien invasion.

Photo: 1  Colossi of Memnon, Egypt, 2000;  2 Balloons over Cappadocia, Turkey, September 2017 (photo David Horan)

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Snettisham 9th October 2017.  A few times each year the highest tides in the Wash coincide with dawn to create a great avian spectacle.  The rising water creeps inexorably over the estuarine flats, sweeping before it the feeding waders, ducks and geese.  Brown mud banks shrink and turn black and grey: through binoculars the black banks are packed masses of oystercatchers, the smudges of grey a great shifting gathering of knot.  Waders pipe and trill restlessly; geese fly over in honking clamouring skeins.  Parties of oystercatchers rise and fly calling to roost around the lagoons.  Distant clouds slowly resolve into great flocks of knot and dunlin, wheeling and turning, one moment the merest smudge the next a black arabesque.  They pass with a whirr of wings and soar up to speckle the sky with tiny crosses.  An hour later a barely ruffled sea covers the mud and the shape shifting of land and birds comes to a close until the tidal cycle is repeated.

Photo: Snettisham, Norfolk, October 2017

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Life in Massawa in the late 1940s seemed like some compensation for the separations and privations of the War.  Being the wife of a senior police officer in the British administration brought both status and servants.  Other hands eased the burden of caring for a new-born daughter.  Sunshine and the otherness of Africa displaced the grey wreckage of London. Bereavement followed a too soon departure.  In 2009, a lifetime later, an urge to see Massawa again.  A fleeting visit from a cruise liner replaced the memories with the modern reality of poverty, dust and decay.  It rarely pays to go back.

Photo: Massawa, Eritrea, December 2009 (AFH)

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I mentioned photographers using traditional cameras in Venice in my piece about the Guggenheim on 20th September.  This photographer is going even further back: it looks as if he’s using a Box Brownie No.2 dating from the 1930s, or maybe earlier, with 120 film.  He has a tripod attached; though it’s not performing its usual function, it appears to be helping him to hold the camera steady in this peculiar stance while operating the shutter with the other hand.  The choice of camera, tripod and view point, rejecting the easy option of using the balustrade to steady the camera, suggest a serious approach to photography.



The photographer contorts himself to get his preferred view; the artist relaxes on the wall, portfolio on her knee.  It’s a slight surprise to realise that she is drawing with her left hand.  She is dressed for the sun and has a bottle of water to hand.  She takes time over the picture, the slow process of transferring what she sees onto the paper.  His click of the shutter will capture the picture in a 1/50th of a second, though the use of film represents slow (‘real’) photography.

There is nothing odd about people photographing and drawing Venice, indeed if each image took away a little of the City there would be nothing left now.  What attracted attention was that both artists were working on the same subject within 50 metres of each other.  Their subject: Djahazi, the contribution from the Union of the Comoros to the Venice Biennale 2009.  The Biennale guide says: ‘Paolo W Tamburella and five Comorian dockers have fixed up a Djahazi boat abandoned in the old port of Moroni.  The boat, loaded with a shipping container, is docked in the water area opposite the Giardini.’

There was a serious intention behind this esoteric installation. Traditional djahazi wooden fishing boats had for centuries been the only means of transport for Comorians; and in modern times they have been used to move shipping containers from cargo boats to the capital Moroni.  In 2006, following the modernization of the port, the use of the djahazi was prohibited.  Tamburella travelled to the Comoros in 2008 in the effort to understand what happened to the dockers and to their boats. He found the djahazis abandoned and rotting in the harbour. A year later Tamburella returned and, working with the dockers, restored one of the djahazi and shipped it to Venice.

Photos: 1 & 2 Riva dei Patrigaini, Venice, September 2009; 3 Djahazi, Riva dei Patrigaini, Venice, September 2009; 4 Djahazi, boats, Comoros, photo Paolo Tamburella

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A cherubic face struggles to emerge from a behind a mask of lichens.  We never had lichens in our garden in the 1950s and sixties, now they grow in grey and orange crusts on stones, trees and garden furniture.  A lichen is a composite organism that grows from algae or cyanobacteria living symbiotically among filaments of fungi. Burning coal in domestic grates has almost stopped, sulphur dioxide levels in the air of towns and cities have fallen and lichens have recolonised areas from which were previously eliminated.

Photo: Gravestone, St Mary the Virgin, Whitney, September 2009

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Whittington Press

I found a web posting about the Whittington Press Open Day 2017 by accident the other day (http://whittingtonpressshop.com).  It reminded me of a trip to the 2009 Open Day with Roy Hammans. This followed an earlier visit when we had gone to see John Randle to talk about Olive Cook and borrow copies of Matrix with articles by or about her.  Notes of the day from my diary follow.

‘Drove to Whittington via Whitney: lovely stretch of elevated pavement with trees; a weathered Butter Cross; an urbane green leading down to the church; a churchyard full of beautifully weathered, lichen encrusted headstones.  At Whittington people were enthralled by the presses, prints and book displays in the archaic and apparently anarchic works.  The visitors constituted a community of interest, as well as seeming to represent a geographical community drawn from the area.’

‘At first glance they seemed to be much of a certain age, but with a number of younger people helping with the presses.  There was passion and enthusiasm for the world of fine print, for things of rarity and beauty, for the tactile, physical texts and images that are a joy to handle.  And a passion for the process too – mechanical, physical and you can see how it works.  A triumph of the real over the virtual.’

‘Visited Whittington Court (the Press is in its grounds) a very fine 16th century house retaining much of its original character – a splendid wooden staircase – all on a very human scale and still home to the family.  A living place, quite unlike most big houses open to the public.  What history, secrets and mysteries these houses hide.  On a bookcase a copy of Herman Goering – The Man and his Work by Erich Gritzbach, with a foreword by Bruce Lockhart, published in an English translation in 1939.’

‘Into the church, which adjoins the house.  Small and quite simple.  A grey haired man played on an electronic keyboard; no dreary hymns, instead “As time goes by” and “Smoke gets in your eyes”.  At the crossing of the nave and chancel a small black and white photograph of a man in uniform, John Neil Randle, whose uncle owned Whittington Court.  A piece of text records he died in the Battle of Kohima on 4th May 1944; and at the bottom a credit, ‘Printed by his son, John Randle.’

‘These six words confirm the connection between the Press and the house.  What looks like a marginal operation commercially, for all its creative worth, is probably subsidised by minimal rent for the rather ramshackle premises, also maybe some family money.’



‘Down the road the village of Whittington was enjoying its Annual Show.  We caught the tail end of cakes, raffle, bygones, ice creams, dog show, Morris Men, vintage arcade games etc.  Sheep grazed lazily in the background.  There seemed to be a disconnection between the Show and the Press Open Day, despite being only 200-300 metres apart. People going to one, but not the other. Differences in culture and class, or maybe just divergent interests?’

Photos: 1-3, 6, Whittington Press Open Day; 4 Whittington Court; 5 John Randle, Whittington Press Open Day; 7 Whittington Show; all September 2009

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Dolgellau Market

Dolgellau Market, 12th June 2009.  ‘It’s a slow start, with a few single and double deck trailers bringing in sheep – lambs, rams, hoggets.  Just before noon the auctioneer and his female assistant stroll across the yard ringing a hand bell.  They climb up onto a metal platform round the sheep pens (there are no cattle today) and start immediately a rapid patter, numbers and the word “pound” ring out, but the details of the transactions are obscure.  He moves quickly from lot to lot, sold as single animals or by the pen.’

‘The bids are almost imperceptible and certainly impenetrable.  I ask a farmer how prices are. He frowns, “Down this week – £25-27; last month they were up to £37.  It’s difficult at these prices.  Last year a load of winter feed cost £450, this year it was £980 and concentrates have doubled.  We get less and the inputs cost more.  The wife finds the same at the supermarket.”   He points to the sheep.  “See the different markings?  They must have the ear tags bought here at 16p, that’s £16 a hundred – it all adds up.  Now they want us to have electronic tags and they cost 60p.”  The auctioneer moves on.’

I see occasional messages on Facebook asking if people remember things from the 1950s and 60s.  I’m tempted to put up a picture of a cattle market with the same question.  Livestock markets were once part of the life, of the weekly and seasonal rhythms, for most towns and cities.  In East Anglia they are now virtually extinct as farming has become almost exclusively arable.  Elsewhere, if they have not closed they are increasingly relegated to sanitised, out of town sites, and health and safety discourages casual visitors.  Stock is often now sold direct from the farm without coming to market.  The Dolgellau farmer agreed that ‘the markets are getting fewer and fewer’.

This is an exemplar of the increasing separation between town and country, the dissolution of an ancient co-dependency.   There is ‘a loss of knowledge about the natural world and a growing isolation from it.’  The mass of the population has no real understanding of the meaning of rural life – countryside leisure and commuting from village to town are not the same thing.  It’s another world, the one captured in the Show of Hands’ angry, elegiac anthem ‘Country Life’ (2003).

It’s the loss too of a very direct connection with our food.  We consume without thinking about where what we eat comes from and the human, animal and environmental cost of its production.  Standing by livestock market pens assailed by lowing, bleating and grunting, the air redolent of the basics of animal life may not turn you into a vegetarian, but it brings home what eating meat really means.

Photos: Dolgellau, Wales, June 2009

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Bodnant Garden

Photographs of the Laburnum Arch dominate the pictures used to promote Bodnant Garden, examples of what I’ve called elsewhere ‘Kodachrome Icons’.  It’s a convenient simplification of what is an extraordinary, complex place.  My diary notes: ‘Spectacular and beautiful, full of what are to me strange and exotic flowers.  Sweeping formal beds and lawns; romantic glades and rambling paths; views out to the distant untamed hills.’  Generations of the garden’s creators planted trees from America and Asian and today Bodnant is ‘home to 42 UK Champion Trees – the biggest, rarest and best of their kind’.

Photo: Bodnant Garden, Wales, June 2009

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Sic Transit

Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem Ozymandias warns: ‘My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ / Nothing beside remains. Round the decay /…’.  It is not just the ruination of the works of the mighty that are a source of despair.  A once fine pier is now a skeleton of rusting metal waiting to fall into the sea. A once palatial cinema is now a closed bingo hall.  A once state of the art motor, the apple of someone’s eye, is an old banger pumping out smoke on the motorway.  Today’s news is tomorrow’s filler in the recycling bin.  In the end our lives become archaeology.  Sic transit gloria mundi.

Photo: Aldeburgh, Suffolk, April 2009

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