Is this propeller blade bolted to the deck of the Queen Mary 2 a sculpture or a spare handy for some transatlantic emergency? It’s definitely sculptural and has a clean formal beauty, but can a piece of pure engineering be considered art? Well, Marcel Duchamp certainly thought so; and this propeller embodies more symbolic meaning than much of the off-the peg public art dropped on buildings and spaces in doomed attempts to make up for their aesthetic and emotional short comings. As a spare it might be comforting to the nervous passenger suffering Titanic anxiety – provided they don’t give too much thought to just how you change a propeller.
Photo: Propeller blade, QM2, December 2011
A herma or herm, is a sculpture with a head, and sometimes a torso, above a plain, usually squared lower section, on which male genitals may be carved – the Anglesey Abbey example is decorously decked with foliage. The form originated in ancient Greece and is connected with the cult of Hermes, the fertility god, whose bearded head surmounts the column. The statues, thought to ward off harm or evil, were placed at crossings and entrance places. Now a formal sculpture, the herm derives from the heaps of stones, or a shapeless columns of stone or wood, by the sides of roads that were the focus for the earliest worship of Greek divinities.
Photo: 18th century stone herm, Warriors’ Walk, Anglesey Abbey, September 2018
When I saw these water lilies growing in the corner of the lake at Quy Fen I was reminded at once of Peter Henry Emerson’s Gathering Water-Lilies (1868). Originally issued as a limited-edition photogravure print, the photograph of a man and a woman in a rowboat was subsequently published in Emerson’s first book, Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads. Emerson, an advocate of naturalism in photography preferred to present his work in books or albums, with text to accompany the image. In 1889 Emerson published Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art, in which he explained his philosophy of art and straightforward photography, making the case that truthful and realistic photographs should replace contrived work by the likes of O. G. Reijlander and H. P. Robinson.
Photo: Water lilies, Quy Fen, Cambridgeshire, September 2018
Quy Fen is a wildlife haven and a rare place to find cattle grazing in the Fens – income from the grazing is shared by the neighbouring villages. In earlier times villagers had the right to cut hay or pea sticks on the land. A lonely memorial stone records: ‘Time how short. In memory of William Ison who was on this spot killed by lightening 28th August 1873 aged 29’. Apparently he was making hay; it’s to be hoped that it was not metaphorical hay. Globally the chances of being killed by a lightning strike are 300,000 to one. The odds are 66 times longer in the UK, but still shorter than winning the Lottery.
Photo: William Ison memorial, Quy Fen, Cambridgeshire, September 2018
Annina Frances Human, 24th April 1947 – 31st August 2018
Saturday 25th August 2018. This morning walked along Cottenham Lode from Cottenham to Rampton, between Little North Fen and Great North Fen. Sunny and breezy; candyfloss cumulous clouds over fields of russet linseed and bleached blond barely-harvestable barley. At Rampton peace and quiet in All Saints church, the patina of the stone, plaster and wood soaked in the joys and sorrows of fifty generations. Outside, restless swallows twittered and a hobby skimmed over the oaks.
Photo: Great North Fen, Cottenham, August 2018
David Hurn and Bill Jay argue that time is embodied in one of the fundamental principles of photography: ‘The exposure is made, and the image is frozen in time, at exactly the right moment’ (Looking at Photographs, 2000). Time is critical in most photographs and its influences have shaped the medium from its very beginnings, from that era when exposures were long and there was no such thing as an instantaneous image. Since then photographers have come to delight in ‘freezing thin slices of time’, perhaps reaching its apogee in the work of Cartier Bresson and the ‘decisive moment’. Catching a subject at precisely the right moment is one of the essential differences between a snapshot and a fine picture, Hurn and Jay claim.
Photo: Clock, QM3, December 2011
22nd August, trip to RSPB Snettisham with J. Overcast to start with, brightening later, mild and breezy. Low tides had left the estuarine mud to be baked into a reticulated tawny shore by endless days of sun. A rare chance to explore the creeks and pools and get close up to the cracked and rusting remains of the jetty left over from gravel extraction. Samphire, sea lavender and sea purslane fringed the tideline; small parties of geese honked and cackled overhead; egrets, tiny flecks of white, fed out on the muddier creeks. Time and tide turned slowly….
Photos: 1-5 Snettisham, Norfolk, August 2016
‘A couple must pay more than £1,100 in fines and costs after letting a Grade-II listed building fall into a dangerous state of disrepair. …. Franco Basso and Katherine Fleming failed to carry out essential repairs on the dilapidated 17th century gothic house on Cottenham High Street. …. Crumbling masonry and broken glass were posing a risk to the public, chimney stacks were left damaged and vegetation on the roof was uncleared. …. South Cambridgeshire District Council had warned the couple to take action, but after no remedial work was carried out took them to court. …. At a hearing at Cambridge Magistrates’ Court on August 9, Franco Basso was fined £440 and must pay £75 costs and a £44 surcharge. Katherine Fleming must pay a £467 fine, £75 costs and a £46 surcharge. …. The owners have since confirmed to council officers that they are making arrangements for the work to be carried out.’ Cambridge Live August 2018
House, probably c.1700 but much altered in early C19 and late in C19 when the facade was remodelled. In the mid C19 the office to the left hand was added.
Photo: Gothic House, High Street Cottenham, July 2018
‘To Ipswich with Roy [Hammans] and Dave [Runnacles]. Street photography nearly got me into trouble. First. A woman took exception to me photographing her on Westgate Street – I didn’t respond and just kept on walking. Second, after taking pictures of the War Memorial in Christchurch Park, I was stopped later in the town centre by two WPCs, who said someone had called in saying that I was photographing them and they were suspicious. My guess is the complaint was from the man sitting with his daughter on the Memorial. The fact that I was well away from the Park by the time I was stopped raises the question of how they found me – picked up and followed on CCTV almost certainly. I showed them the pictures and they seemed happy enough (an unexpected benefit of digital photography?). What if I had stood up for my rights and refused? A lot more complications, almost certainly. There is a case for saying that if I want to intrude on people in public places they have right to challenge what I’m doing; and if they perceive any possible threat the police have a duty to investigate.’ Friday 20th April 2012
This picture shows the Memorial (1924, by E Adams) in its setting. Others were taken much closer and the father and child are recognisable.
Photo: War Memorial, Christchurch Park, Ipswich, April 2012
The agapanthus derives its name from two Greek words: agape, which means love; and anthos, which means flower. Together, the agapanthus is the flower of love. In the traditional language of flowers it meant ‘love letter’. Maybe this flower suggests there is love on offer behind the misted window. But take care. The Greco-Christian agape refers the highest form of love, the selfless, sacrificial, unconditional love that transcends and persists regardless of circumstance. It is not to be confused with eros, nor should this agapanthus be confused with a red light.
Photo: Agapanthus, Ipswich, April 2012
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
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
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
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