Fen Landscape 33 – Great North Fen, Cottenham

Friday 22nd June 2018.  Midsummer evening walk into the geometric, point perspective, fen landscape.  Cultivator tracks meet a distant hedge separating land and sky, ordered, unvarying green from random blue and white.  The wheat looks healthy and full of promise, underneath the ground is parched and cracked.  Water flows slowly down Cottenham Lode to meet the Great Ouse.

Photo:  Great North Fen, Cottenham. June 2018

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Joan Leigh Fermor 2

In the past year two things have happened to add some details to the story of Joan Leigh Fermor, photographer, described in my blog of 22nd November 2017.  First, the publication of Patrick Leigh Fermor – The Journey Continues.  Second the exhibition and associated publication ‘Ghika Craxton Leigh Fermor – Charmed Lives in Greece’.

Patrick Leigh Fermor – The Journey Continues

Patrick Leigh Fermor – The Journey Continues (9th Supplement, Benaki Museum, Athens, 2017) presents a series of essays on the life and legacy of Patrick Leigh Fermor (Paddy, PLF).  Joan is mentioned, insofar as she is part of that life and legacy, in two contributions: ‘Paddy and Joan’ by Cressida Connolly; and ‘Curating the Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor Archive’ by David McClay. Six photographs are credited to her, four of them being of Paddy and their house at Kardamyli.


Connolly describes Joan as quiet, shy even, measured, clear sighted, interested in unconventional people and with an excellent mind and sound judgement.  ‘She was an observer, but she was always very present’, says Connolly.  A line can be drawn between these qualities and Joan’s career as a photographer: ‘Naturally watchful, she began to take photographs’, suggests Connolly.  Joan ‘delighted in ghoulish things’, which brings to mind immediately her photography of Pere Lachaise Cemetery, London’s Victorian cemeteries and cemeteries in Genoa, Guadeloupe and Haiti.

McClay describes how the Joan Leigh Fermor Archive arrived at the National Library of Scotland .  There are around 6000 photographs in her achieve; and there are 3,000 in the PLF archive, some of which are by Joan.  He suggests, ‘That she had a keen eye and [the] ability to photograph architectural and archaeological subjects is clear from her pictures.’   ‘Whilst many of Joan’s photographs are in albums which give basic geographical and chronological details they would be immeasurably enhanced with fuller descriptions,’ writes McClay.  Overall, ‘the collection is of significant interest and importance, not just for Paddy enthusiasts but for those particularly interested in Greece.’

 Ghika Craxton Leigh Fermor – Charmed Lives in Greece

This exhibition opened at the A. G. Leventis Gallery in Nicosia, Cyprus, in February 2017, moved on to the Benaki Museum, Athens, in June 2017, before a run at the British Museum, London, from 8th March to 15th July 2018.  The exhibition included paintings, drawings, photographs, text, a short film and artefacts.  It records what Sir Michael Llewellyn-Smith in the film calls, ‘a time of renaissance of literary and artistic collaboration between Britain and Greece’.  The substantial, well-illustrated publication to accompany the show, edited by Evita Arapoglou, documents the lives in Greece of the creative trio.  My comments below are based on the 3rd revised edition, April 2018.

The exhibition included eight photographs credited to Joan.  The book has 16 photographs credited to her, six related to building their house at Kardamyli, five portraits of Paddy, two of Ghika and one of John Craxton, and two group pictures.  Joan’s Nikkormat, which she used to document the building of the house, was an exhibit.

The book focuses on the story of the three protagonists, with Joan portrayed as a continuing and reliable background presence.  She wrote newsy letters to Ghika; he, John Craxton and other friends seem to see her mainly as a confidante and friend.  In later life her focus at Kardamyli seems to have been gardening, cats and cookery. However, she is described as an ‘indispensable part of [Paddy’s] life, the lover, companion and support’, a quiet, calming force.  He aspired to be a writer, but: ‘Apart from his trans-European walk in the 1930s, which he did not yet see how to handle, he had no core experience to draw on.  His travels in Greece, with Joan [taking photographs] were the result.’


Both The Journey Continues and ‘Charmed Lives in Greece’ focus very deliberately on Patrick Leigh Fermor, not Joan, who is a supporting actor in the ‘renaissance’ drama that is recounted.  She emerges as reserved intelligent, thoughtful and organised, qualities that complemented Paddy’s very different character.  This was certainly not a purely passive role: she accompanied Paddy in his explorations of Greece; and her photographs informed his writing and graced his publications.  In the film show at ‘Charmed Lives’, John Craxton speaks of how he and Ghika were ‘working by memory and imagination’.  That would be a very good description of Paddy’s writing too and Joan’s photographs were important to him on both counts.

Connolly writes of Joan as ‘naturally watchful’ and an ‘observer’, both qualities essential for good photography.  They have shaped the significant, interest and importance that McClay accords her work.  But the limited number and range of photographs included in the exhibition and publications offer few new clues as to the quality of her work, other than as competent records.  A sense of personal and photographic competency emerges and it appears this how she was seen in the wider literary and artistic circle of which she was a part, not as creative artist in her own right.  How much this is really due to any limitations she had as a photographer or the cultural climate that still relegated photography to the lower ranks of the arts is an open question.

Photos: 1. Cover, Patrick Leigh Fermor – The Journey Continues; 2. Patrick & Joan Leigh Fermor’s House, Kardamyli, Greece, 2014; 3. ‘Ghika Craxton Leigh Fermor – Charmed Lives in Greece’ exhibition, British Museum, June 2018; 4. Joan Leigh Fermor’s Nikkormat and sketch by PLF, ‘Ghika Craxton Leigh Fermor – Charmed Lives in Greece’ British Museum, June 2018; 5. Cover, Ghika Craxton Leigh Fermor – Charmed Lives in Greece; 6. Lunch at Kardamyli, March 1967 – Paddy with the master mason and family, photo Joan Leigh Fermor

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Classical Archaeology 4

I’m fascinated by the strangeness of the Museum of Classical Archaeology.  On one level it’s the unease at being watched over in our mortality by all those lowering gods and emperors, like being entombed prematurely in a great sepulchre.  Then there is the dichotomy between the beauty of the sculpture and bloody, rapine, incestuous, vindictive, vengeful, greedy (etc., take your pick) stories they embody.  Or partially embody – this is a world of headless, legless, armless, neutered sculptural carnage.  Nothing seems stranger than this head, reduced to the fragment of a face struggling to escape, Alien-like, from a block of stone.

Photo: Head, Museum of Classical Archaeology, Cambridge, June 2018.

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Making Connections

‘I got to the end of a project I’ve been working on for some time, which was both pleasing and a relief.  I found that, by working on one particular subject (with a couple of others rumbling in the background), I had become a bit obsessive, which in turn felt rather limiting.  Often when I finish something I feel a bit lost as to what to start next, but this time it was quite the opposite – I found I was taking my camera everywhere I went and simply pleasing myself as to what I took pictures of, regardless of any idea of what I should do with them.  I admit I felt I had permission to carry on in this way because it replicated Dayanita Singh’s approach to her photography [http://dayanitasingh.net/].  She shoots what appeals to her and only later looks for connections and themes in her work.  It seems to work beautifully for her so I felt that borrowing the method could be interesting.’  Elizabeth Roberts, Black and White Photography, July 2018, p.1.

Photo: Euston Road, London, June 2018

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Classical Archaeology 3

Sculpture from the temple of Zeus at Olympia. ‘Here the subject is a battle between Lapiths and Centaurs, mythical tribes of northern Greece, which took place at a wedding feast. The Centaurs, half horse half man, had been invited to the wedding but drank too much wine and attempted to abduct the Lapith women.’  According to Colin Clews, the Centaurs were ‘equally unable to rein in their desire for the young men: look closely and they’re carrying them off too.’

Photo: Lapith woman, Temple of Zeus at Olympia, Museum of Classical Archaeology, June 2018

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Classical Archaeology 2

‘Harmodios and Aristogeiton were honoured for bringing an end to tyranny and restoring democracy in Athens in 514 BCE.  In the early fifth century BCE the emerging democracy in Athens was crushed by the coming to power of two tyrants, Hippias and Hipparchos. Although only partially successful — Hippias escaped death — Harmodios and Aristogeiton were celebrated for overthrowing the tyranny. … The message is: tyrants beware, this is a democratic society’  Colin Clews, in ‘Queer Antiquities’, a contribution to Cambridgeshire LGBTQ History Month writes: ‘They were said to be lovers, motivated in part by Hipparchus’ unwanted advances on Harmodios’.

Photo: Harmodios, The Tyrant Slayers, Museum of Classical Archaeology, June 2018

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Renee Spierdijk

Renee Spierdijk at the Alison Richard Building, Cambridge.  ‘Renee Spierdijk’s work responds to images of young girls and women, mainly from found photographs.  She choose portraits that are taken in formal settings, with the individual often surrounded by political or religious artefacts.  Spierdijk is interested in the conditioning and domestication which children seem to be subjected to and in which they can appear patient, content or quietly mutinous as they wait and hope to become themselves.’  Exhibition on until 29th June 2018.

Photo: Renee Spierdijk paintings, Alison Richard Building, Cambridge, June 2018

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U3AC Photo Forum 26 – Post Processing Photo Challenge

Tim briefed us for the session of the Forum on Friday: Your final challenge of the term is to improve a series of images, using whatever post-processing tools & creative tricks you like. Molly [Warrington] provided the six images in the linked folder. Please have a good at up to three of them and send me your results by Tuesday 12th June for our final session of the year on Friday 15th June.

Molly’s six pictures were: Owl, Elephant, Fens – winter, Vietnamese market, Mother & baby and Ta Prohm Temple.  She chose them as what she considered relative failures that might be improved by some imaginative post-processing.  Nine people responded to the brief and submitted pictures based on the originals using a range of post-processing packages, e.g. Lightroom, Photoshop and Silver Efex.  The phrase ‘creative tricks’ was interpreted liberally.

Many of the tools used were quite straight forward: cropping, exposure adjustment, softening, vignetting, converting to black and white and enhancing saturation and vibrancy.  More dramatic effects were achieved by: montaging, solarisation, posterisation, combining pictures, removing or adding elements or both, selective colour changes and saturation/desaturation and changing the overall appearance by using processing pre-sets.




In many cases the results achieved improved the originals to produce decent picture that would not look out of place in a family album, thereby showing the power and benefits of post processing.  In other cases the dramatic transformations were presented tongue in cheek as flights of fancy and demonstrated admirable skill with the available software.  These gimmicks certainly raised questions: Is it photography?  Is it art?  All the efforts showed how much better it is to get the right picture into the camera to start with.  No amount of post-processing will rescue a bad picture.   All the results are available at https://www.zimbushboy.org/photo-forum



We took the opportunity at this last session to review how well the Forum had worked over the three terms.  Members agreed that most of the objectives set out at the beginning had been achieved and the majority of the subjects that people were interested in had been covered (again, see https://www.zimbushboy.org/photo-forum).  The sessions had been enjoyable and the opportunity to share work in a friendly atmosphere was welcome.  Members considered they now had a better upstanding of photography as an art and of its history – they felt more able to look back at their pictures and appreciate what they have.  The fact that the Forum ran for an extra term is testimony to its success.

And next year?  Enthusiasm for the Forum to continue, certainly.  And possible areas for development: more critique (challenge) and less anecdote; looking in depth at favourite photographers; additional contributions from outside practitioners; understanding processing packages; and finding our photographic voices.





Photos: Molly’s originals and my interpretations: 1 & 2 Ta Prohm Temple; 3 & 4 Vietnamese market; 5 & 6 Mother & baby

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Classical Archaeology 1

Niobe, a daughter of Tantalus, King of Lydia, foolishly boasted that her children where more beautiful than Apollo and Artemis, the offspring on Leto and Zeus.  The two gods killed all of Niobe’s children and she was turned to stone, forever weeping on Mt Sipylus.  This daughter has been wounded in the back; it was part of a temple pediment, probably from south Italy or southern Greece, c.440-430 BCE.

Photo: Daughter of Niobe, University of Cambridge, Museum of Classical Archaeology.

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Being a Tree

‘I am a tree and I am quite lonely; I weep in the rain.  For the sake of Allah, listen to what I have to say: I don’t want to be a tree, I want to be its meaning.’  My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk

Photo: Stow cum Quy Fen, March 2018

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Sing a Rainbow

Two students from ARU spoke about music therapy, its power in both learning and unlocking memories, at the St Matthew’s ‘Slice of Life’ yesterday.  I find often that songs can pin down events in my past where the date eludes me.  Cilla Black singing ‘Red and yellow and pink and green’, the opening line of ‘I Can Sing a Rainbow’, takes me back to driving to Wales in a black Austin A30, POH 766, with my first serious girlfriend.  The world of Wiki tells me it’s 1966.

Photo: The Anchor, Sutton Gault, May 2018

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U3AC Photo Forum 25 – Members’ Street Photography

Members of the Forum were asked to submit their photographs for this session, which followed naturally on the previous two classes.  I provided the following brief.  ‘Street photography can be interpreted in a number of ways. Pictures: of people and everyday life in the street and public spaces; elevating the commonplace and familiar into something mythical and even heroic; seeing the street as a theatre of endless possibilities; and holding up a mirror to the kind of societies we are making for ourselves. The realms of street photography can include streets, shopping centres, parks, bars, museums, public transport, coastal promenades and piers and so on.’

Thirteen people submitted 54 pictures.  They covered a wide range of subjects, which I grouped under eight headings to give the presentation and discussion some structure: public art (4); streets/movement (4); markets (8); signs and text (7); performance (9); events (6); work (7); and waiting/reverie (9).  All pictures will be available at https://www.zimbushboy.org/photo-forum.

Points and advice about street photography emerging from the discussion included: always carry a camera; be prepared, be patient and hope for good luck; look at the choreography of figures; is there a story to be told?, humour helps; take care with the background, does it contribute to or distract from the picture?; three figures/features help make strong compositions; pictures including public art need to have something added and not be merely records of the work; you don’t have to be somewhere exotic to take good street pictures; and you are legally entitled to take photographs in most public places, but don’t take it for granted that everyone will be happy with you doing so.

Photos: 1. Eat, Petty Cury, Cambridge, April 2017; 2. Hills Road, Cambridge, August 2017; 3. Brighton, April 2018

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Patchwork Field

On Wednesday a four mile round-trip walk from The Crown, Little Walden.  At Sadlers Farm we crossed a field a curious patchwork of green and gold – strong dark green wheat and a stunted indeterminate golden cereal.  Green and gold were mostly sharply divided, but in places merged in an impressionistic overlapping brush strokes.  What’s going on?  Different crops? Misapplications of chemicals?  Very different from the flowing fields of barley seen at Quy Fen recently (post 29th May 2018).

Photo: Sadlers Farm, Little Walden, June 2018

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Banksy is the best-known (and best?) of the graffiti artists whose work has blurred the distinction between art and vandalism.  Local authorities don’t like graffiti.  Cambridge City Council’s web site says: ‘Graffiti is illegal. It spoils property and can be costly to remove. … We aim to remove offensive graffiti – specifically anything that might be considered racist, sexist, obscene or inflammatory – within one day of receiving a report … All possible steps will be taken to ensure that any damage to surfaces is kept to a minimum.’  ‘Vote to Love’ by Banksy will be in this year’s RA Summer show with a £350M price tag – a two fingered gesture to the commercial art world and a polite way of saying NFS.

Photo: Quy Fen, Cambs, May 2018

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‘We rarely love what we cannot name’, said Robert Macfarlane at the Cambridge Literature Festival in April 2018.  He was speaking with Jackie Morris about their book The Lost Words.  He may be right, but there is a somewhat Linnaean obsessiveness in the need to know the name of everything, in taming nature by naming it, putting it into a box.



JL and I couldn’t name these flowers a Quy Fen.  A creamy umbillifer, yes, but angelica, hemlock, hogweed or something else?  Then a show of gold from the daisy family – sow-thistle, hawkweed, hawk’s beard maybe.  Our failure to name them piqued our curiosity without detracting from our joy at seeing them.  The magic does not always require a name.

Photos: Quy Fen, Cambs, May 2018

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