What would Wren do

So, the battle lines are being drawn over the fate of the Mackintosh Library at the Glasgow School of Art after it fell victim to another and it seems even more calamitous fire. It’s restore v something new v something which is a bit of both according to the Guardian

It’s the curse of the modern age, the desire to preserve things in cultural aspic, or even worse to build a replica of something and then preserve that in cultural aspic. I remember the great fire at Hampton Court Palace, followed by the creation stone by stone of an exact replica of what had been burned down. Wren didn’t look at the smouldering ashes of Old St Pauls and say that it would be possible to rebuild it stone by stone, he cleared the site and put up something new and exciting in it’s place. After the old houses of parliament burn down we didn’t get a replica, we got (love it or loathe it) the gothic pile we have now. In the past it was accepted that buildings, even great and important ones, decay, fall apart or quite frequently burn down and you replaced them with something new and original. Coventry got it’s new cathedral at the end of the blitz, and it’s a city landmark in it’s own right. This is what for most of history, you did.

But now, in a UK terrified of both modernity and change, that thought process is an anathema. Now you have to create a replica of what was lost, which is not preserving our heritage at all of course. Nowadays there would be a ‘preserve old St Pauls society’, probably headed by the Prince of Wales, campaigning against the idea of a small version of St Peters in central London (so modern, so foreign) causing Wren to bugger off to seek clients in more forward thinking realms than this. Change is necessary, it’s part of life and of society. We have, sometimes, to let go of our vision of the past and not vote leave, sorry not seek to rebuild stuff.

The National Trust is seeking in the wake of the great fire at Clandon Park to ‘rebuild and reimagine’ and have invited various teams to make proposals. Some of these look more exciting and imaginative than others to my mind and it will be interesting to see which wins out. But what is not being proposed is just a slavish rebuilding. Personally I’d like to see something which stabilises the ruin and re-purposes the space as an arts venue in which not only will it be possible to see great contemporary art but also enjoy what is left of the original building. The country is awash with country houses, but few where you can see under the skin, so it’s a win win.

So, what about the Mackintosh library? Seriously? The building was gutted by fire and rebuilt, only to be gutted by fire again. So rebuilding wouldn’t be rebuilding the library, it would be rebuilding the rebuilt library. How about a solution which keeps the facade and then uses the rest of the space for an arts library for the 21st Century. For heaven’s sake, students weren’t even allowed to use the original one, give them one the next generation of Mackintoshes can use to learn how to be great architects and designers of the future.


Why Can’t We Have Rural ‘Cultural Hubs’?

Time for a polemic.

Seems to me that these days it’s common for depressed urban areas to re-invigorate themselves as cultural hubs (or whatever version of that phrase the people writing the bid documents and the press releases opt to use). Now, let me be clear on this, I’m not knocking this one little bit, I’m all for places focussing more on the arts, culture and creativity. Good for Hull, good for Stoke on Trent, good for anywhere which does it.

But, in this rush to re-invigorate city centres, we’re missing important places; we aren’t creating cultural hubs in our market towns and rural locations. When did you last seen creative companies with offices in Vancouver and Bandford Forum, or Shanghai and Bridport, or Berlin and Shrewsbury? Why is it always London, or Edinburgh, or Bristol, or Liverpool? Just doesn’t happen does it? I think it’s time that, as a nation, we seriously looked at tapping into the vast creative resources of what is, after all, the biggest part of the country. For all that cities are big, the part of the UK which isn’t cities is much bigger. This isn’t just a creativity blind spot, it’s an everything blind spot. For all the politicians of every flavour play lip service to the importance of rural britain, it’s rural britain which gets neglected. Go to London, or Bristol, or some such and you can see more than one bus at one time: go into the country and you’re lucky to see more than one bus a week. Libraries close. Schools get less money. Services get cut and people with money from the cities either retire here or just buy up properties as second homes at prices which prevent locals buying (or even in many cases, renting) which pushes up migration from the country and rural homelessness. So the fact that it’s cities which become creative hubs is just one projecting bit of a huge iceberg. Walk round any market town and you’ll see loads of premises for rent, shops which have closed down because the supermarkets have taken their trade, offices above shops, small manufacturing companies which have closed; look behind the pretty pretty tourist facade and you see market towns in something of a crisis. These premises would of course still make great shops, or small manufacturing units, but they’d also make great locations for creative businesses.

Not only do we have premises, we have people. Lots and lots of talented people, and especially young people. One of the big issues is the lack of opportunity for young people, there aren’t a lot of jobs and if you can’t drive then is pretty much there aren’t any jobs. Particularly, there isn’t a great variety of jobs. School leavers here often go off to college, and then don’t come back because to work in the field they want they need the employment tonnage of the big cities where they have to not only pay off their student loans but shell out for expensive accommodation.

Of course, the majority of the UK (and I’m going to now rather acidly call the bits which aren’t cities) has loads of creative businesses of all kinds. Small and successful design firms abound (a couple of friends of mine own one), and there are craft workshops of all kinds doing very well thank you. What’s more the Internet has allowed these small businesses access to a national, if not global, marketplace so they’re not just trying to sell to people in the same town. The very existence of all these creative firms shows how much talent and will we have once you find yourself in the land where every road has neither a pavement nor streetlights. So what’s my problem?

My problem is that this pool of creative talent isn’t recognised and it’s not supported in growing. These are self employed people and small firms operating often on tight margins. I’m sure they’d love to be able to offer places for apprentices and internships for the creatively motivated young people leaving schools and colleges but it’s not really an option for them. What if there was financial support for businesses to expand, with grants for premises and equipment, and adequate public transport to allow for young people to take up the apprenticeships and internships? What if not only did we attract production companies to do their locations shoots for tv and movies in small towns, but to base themselves here as well? Then we’d also attract the companies who provide support for them as well and then there would be opportunities for local people to work in them without moving away. If we were serious about affordable housing (rather than putting a token few homes on an another domitory executive housing project) people leaving university who wanted to work in the creative industries could move back home out of the cities instead of them. With all these folks the town centres could become thriving places in the evening with all the jobs in bars, restaurants, theatres and cinemas that would create.

You could well say my dream of seeing a feature in a magazine where they visit a major digital effects company based in Bridport, or an international design studio based in Fakenham. or hearing about the Sussex Cultural Hub is just dream. But then again, 20 years ago you’d have laughed at the idea that you’d have trendy cafes in Shoreditch or that one of the big players in the film industry could be New Zealand…..

Gothic, what…


Seldom has a word carried such a range of similar, but really quite different, meanings than that one. Somehow, we all think we know what it means, but try to tie it down and it’s slippery. Pointy arches? Ivy covered walls? Vampires? Victorians? Languid long haired girls in black frocks and chokers? Anything black? Anything brooding? Pugin? Would Pugin have wanted aforementioned young ladies draped over his architecture? And what happens when ‘gothic’ turns into ‘goths’? Whole new can of worms to open there.

The OED defines Gothic as:

1. relating to the Goths or their extinct language, which belongs to the East Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family. It provides the earliest manuscript evidence of any Germanic language (4th–6th centuries ad).
2. of or in the style of architecture prevalent in western Europe in the 12th–16th centuries (and revived in the mid 18th to early 20th centuries), characterized by pointed arches, rib vaults, and flying buttresses, together with large windows and elaborate tracery. English Gothic architecture is divided into Early English, Decorated, and Perpendicular.
3. (also archaic Gothick) belonging to or redolent of the Dark Ages; portentously gloomy or horrifying: 19th-century Gothic horror.
4. (of lettering) of or derived from the angular style of handwriting with broad vertical downstrokes used in western Europe from the 13th century, including Fraktur and black-letter typefaces.
5. (gothic) relating to goths or goth music.

Well, bad news for the Goths but nobody seems to consider them when they think of Gothic, which is a bit sad really given their impact on the shape of post Roman Europe, but that’s how it is, we’re ignoring them. Future blog on the art of the Goths: promise. Not really sure the popular imagination is really down with number four either. Lettering and typography isn’t really featuring much. Which pretty much leaves us with a mixture of two and three with a smattering of five; architecture with added portentous gloom. Which sort of really does sum it up if you think of all the aforementioned women in black dresses as being gloomy.

What rather, I think, throws the candelabra in the coffin of the Gothic, as seen on Instagram, Facebook and so forth, is that much of it seems to via away from the portentiously gloomy and into a kind of romanticism; pre-Raphaelite dark if you will. It’s an aesthetic which is as much about long curly hair and long victoriana dresses as it is about any sense of gloomy foreboding. Then, these days, you also get some overtones of it in Steampunk; when that alternative reality nineteenth century meets the supernatual, you can pretty much see the ‘Gothic’ in it.

Of course, and this is really the point towards which I was rambling, this whole gothic meets romantic meets PRB is actually a great combination visually.

It makes for great photos and paintings.

Pop Art: Child of it’s time

I have to say, I’ve never been sure about Pop Art; never been sure if my response to it is positive, negative or just plain indifferent. It’s a bit like any movement really, can any of us really say that they like x-ism or dislike y-ism in their entirety? No of course we can’t, all it really comes down to is saying how we feel generally.

Well generally, I’m pretty indifferent to Pop Art.

Some of it I respond to positively. It may be hackneyed but I’ve always like Whaam! – child of the 60s that I am…but then again I’m a bit ‘so what’ about the cover for Sgt Pepper (okay, I said it, sue me). Wasn’t sure about Andy Warhol until I saw an exhibition about his work at MOMA Oxford last year and felt more positively disposed. So when I got an opportunity to get to one of the last days of The World Goes Pop at Tate Modern I decided to give it a go; I thought an exhibition on Pop Art which wasn’t American would be interesting and maybe give me some new insights. I paid my entrance fee (discounted with my Art Pass, first time I got to use it) and ‘did’ the show…and ultimately found my opinion on Pop Art unchanged, I’m still not sold on it. There were a couple of, for me, stand out pieces which made going worth while. Cornel Brudascu’s Youth on the Building Yard,  the timber and fabric newsprint of Joe Tilson, and Komar and Melamid‘s reworking of post-holocaust canonical American pop art impressed me a lot and made me want to look at more of their work.

But what I really found myself thinking was that it was all very 60s counter-culture, it’s a child of its time. Pop Art is, inseparable from the summer of love, Vietnam and throwing rocks at coppers. I don’t think it’s just the fact that for those of us who are children of the 60s the visual effect is just so there, it’s that the whole central idea of Pop Art means that it’s totally rooted in that period. Pop Art is about taking imagery from commercial art, graphic design and popular culture and making art with it…which means that it shrieks it’s time of creation. Adverts and popular culture have limited shelf-lives and the imagery is transient, very few things are timeless. The Tilson news paper pages (like this one) have to be from the 60s, not only because the photos say that but because the look of the page isn’t like newspaper pages today. The colour choices are those of 60’s commercial products. The idea of Pop Art too is of course only noteworthy for the 60s because it was new, nobody now would bat an eyelid about an artist incorporating commercial or news imagery in their work, it’s accepted, it’s what many artists do.

And that, I think, in a burst of introspection, is why I’m largely indifferent to Pop Art – because it’s embedded in the world which created it. I remember my sister (who was 16 years older) having loads of weird friends, and being into the Maharishi and TM, and I wonder to this day how much pot I may have passively smoked hanging around with them. I remember seeing the Grosvenor Square riots on tv and the news being full of Vietnam and Watergate. These are part of my memories of being 8 or 9. When I look at Pop Art I can see this time, but I can’t see anything relevant to any feeling beyond that time. Nothing which says that what I’m looking at says anything about what it is to be human, or which is bigger than me.

Nothing which moves me for good or ill beyond a sense of nostalgia.


Exhibition review on ArtsDesk

Sharp Images: Fuzzy Concepts

There is nothing worse than a sharp image of a fuzzy concept.”
Ansel Adams

The great Ansel Adams was famous for pre-visualising his images before he photographed them: prior to pushing the button he already knew in his head how it was going to look when he’d finished the entire process from setting up the photo to hanging up the print in the darkroom. Though this isn’t true of all his images, the famous Moonrise was a grab shoot in the finest sense of the word, involving the car skidding to a halt so he could leap out and get the shot. But generally he was a considered image maker who thought and planned his images

“The simple lesson of previsualization – that is as applicable today as when Ansel Adams was capturing his spectacular images of Yosemite National Park – is that while one might get lucky, and capture a fine image, the far more likely result of approaching a subject without an idea already in mind is disappointment”

Andy Ilachinsky

Great artists of all kinds produced in the past, produce today, a great number of sketches and working drawings before committing paint to paper or chisel to marble, refining the idea and exploring alternatives as they worked towards the finished piece. Sure, Paul Klee said that drawing was taking a line for a walk, but that doesn’t imply that he was unaware of the path it was going to take.  I, and I’m sure most other creative people, know what it’s like to work on something, trying different things and ultimately realising that what is wrong is the idea itself rather than the execution; to use the expression from the joke about the tourist who asks somebody in rural Ireland for directions and gets the response, “if I was you I’d not be starting from here”. When I was at university I often realised that if my essay was boring and pedestrian then the problem was the structure I’d picked for it. Before you create something, be it image, sculpture, dress, hairstyle or building, you need to know clearly what you want the result to be like, not necessarily exactly how it is going to look, but how it makes you feel.

Last year I found myself disatisfied with my photography. I knew I was better than I had been but felt I wasn’t improving or getting to where I wanted to be. So I asked a professional friend of mine if she’d mind looking at the photos I’d made on holiday that summer and give me one or two pointers; a critique which would just give me a couple of things I could concentrate on getting right. One of them was this image of Eastbourne pier, with which I was rather pleased actually, I wanted some beach and a low viewpoint and the line of posts in the foreground and the clouds were interesting, all of which I’d thought of when I made the image.


Then I read her critique in which she said “the thing with that is I don’t know what I’m supposed to be looking at, the pier, or the posts, or that clump of weeds”. She’s right of course, totally right. The flaw isn’t in the execution, I’d got into it everything I wanted…what was wrong was that I’d missed the key fact that it wasn’t really a photograph of anything. I should have thought about what the main point was and then asked myself if the other things were detracting from it. Looking at good professional work it’s clear, once I’d internalised it, that there is no doubt what we’re supposed to be looking at in the image; they’re not photographs of this …they’re photographs of this. Go and check out the amazing portraits of of Bella West, her subjects are not always in the middle of the frame filling the space, sometimes they’re off centre, or quite small, or not looking at the camera…but they are always full of intention – Ms West knows exactly what photo she’s taking before she takes it. There’s a nice interview with her here if people are interested in finding more about her and her work – Mike Browne calls her compositions “off the wall”; it’s fine to go off the wall if you know why you’re doing it!

So is this entire blog post a fuzzy concept? Let me know in the comments!

Too little imperfection; why we like analogue

Okay, this is not the blog post you were supposed to be reading today. That was going to be originally one on ‘sharp ideas: fuzzy concepts’ but after seeing Pop Goes the World at Tate I was going to blog about pop art.

You’ll get those in the future.

So why the suddent deviation from the plan (yes, I have a plan)? Well it was inspired by three things
1) Occasionally I put a roll of film through my Pentax, sort of for old time’s sake, which I was doing today
2) I was in my local Boots, The Chemist, when I saw that they were selling rolls of 35mm roll film, their own colour and Ilford monochrome
3) Watching tonight’s countryfile and seeing an item about photographer Jack Lowe and his project to photograph all the UK lifeboat stations using a vintage ambotype plate camera.

Which all got me thinking about using film (and plates), about analogue photography, indeed thinking about it to the point where I thought I may as well turn my thinking into a blog post. Analogue: What’s the Attraction?

There is, among audio engineers old enough to remember, a nostalgia for what is called ‘analogue warmth’, it’s hard to pin down exactly what this actually is but essentially it comes down to a desirable level of imperfection really. See this great article in Sound on Sound which also references digital imaging for some insights. Back in the days of the old Victor Blackman column in A.P. he always said medium format was better than 35mm as the resolution was better, and lens tests always involved blowing up images from the corner of 35mm frames to insane levels to see how much detail they had; my memory is that these were always of dockyards, maybe the office overlooked one, or maybe I’m imagining this. It was all about ‘sharp’ because sharp was good, the holy grail of a good image. But now we’ve got sharp, we’ve got sharp as never before, we’ve got sharp so sharp that if they weren’t photoshopped to within an inch of their lives even photos of top models would make their skins look less than perfect. Bizarrly, what do we do as part of our post-processing workflows pray tell? We apply sharpening, as though the bloody things weren’t already sharp as razors. Then we apply some extra contrast (I say ‘we’ because I do it too) because somehow contrast looks good, we’re used to contrast being on the high side. Hey, film never looked like that…

And, I suspect, that’s why many of use who remember film (and some snappers who don’t of course) are happy to go back to it. Because the photos look like photos. Take a look at this photo of mine, the year is 1979 and it’s from the first roll of film I put through my K1000 which was my first 35mm slr (I still have it, it still works). No idea who any of these people are because in 1979 it was okay to wander down to the local school fete and photograph kids with whom you had no connection, which in retrospect is quite alarming. It’s not a great photo, though I love the expression on the little girl’s face, but the blacks are nice and rich without needing too much contrast, and it’s sharp but not un-naturally so. It looks better on the print rather than this scan by the way, because it’s a totally analogue process from start to finish on the print.

School Fete - 1979

Now I’m not going to type here and say that digital is rubbish, or even bad, because it’s not, it’s really good and I shoot most of my stuff on digital cameras now and I love doing that, but I love shooting analogue too. I think the issue is that everything that was said about the wonders of digital audio and imaging are perfectly true, that it would be sharp and clear; I remember a friend who heard one of the first CD players saying “the amazing thing was that there was no noise between the tracks!!!” That they’d be portable, and storage would be bigger and so we’d get more sound onto our players or more images onto our cameras. That with a digital camera we wouldn’t have to either do all that smelly stuff with chemicals and black out the bathroom, or wait for them to come back from the processor’s. All those things are true, and what made them such attractive concepts was that at the time they seemed to offer solutions to the things we disliked without us realising that a lot of those things were fundamental to what we enjoyed. We didn’t realise that actually, we could have too much sharpness and contrast, to much clarity and perfection.

Choose Simplicity over Fussiness

I came across the following quote on the blog Esme and the Laneway

If in doubt, choose simplicity over fussiness

Esme writes mostly about vintage fashion, and in this post she’s interviewing Nicole Jenkins of Circa Vintage in Melbourne, about a book she had written. When I read it I thought how much it reflected my views on what looks good; what I think counts as good design and visually satisfying art. In fact I think it’s a great maxim for many other things beyond the visual; think about how much we like the devices we use to be intuitive and simple without loads of knobs, buttons and dials. We don’t like to have to fight our way through technology to use our devices and I don’t think we like to fight our way through needless fussiness in our visual environment. So how am I interpreting ‘fussiness’ here? It’s not ornamentation per se, it’s ‘ornamentation for the sake of it’, ‘ornamentation to no point’, ‘ornamentation which doesn’t know when to stop’, ‘ornamentation just `because you can‘.

I’m going to say here that I think this viewpoint isn’t new, however much it seems very late 20th century onwards. We think of the victorian living room chock a block with ornaments and patterns, or the over the top and over-wrought craziness of victorian gothic and, let’s get it out there, the Albert Memorial. But at the same time you have the whole arts and crafts thing going on which produced some very clean design. “Now hang on!! (I hear you crying) William Morris Wallpaper!!”. Well, to be honest, I think Morris is right out there on the edge of pointless ornamentation, the same way his buddies the PRB are in painting. Not arguing there. But it was about so much more than Morris; take a look at arts and crafts furniture and much of it is very clean and non-fussy. I’m not going to take a trip through the art and design history of the last couple of hundred years, apart from saying that Art Nouveau is going to be my exception in that a lot of it is very fussy but I really like it…in moderation.

So what is is about simplicity which is so satisfying? I think it’s because you can have a lot of it without it clashing. Patterns are much easier to over-do. Fair Isle cardigan + muted dress = looks great. Plain cardigan + floral patterned dress = looks great. Fair Isle cardigan + floral dress…you get what I’m driving at here. When you start introducing ornamentation you are putting limits on what you can do, how much of it you can have without it looking like a mess. When I was a kid in the 60s and early 70s we had wallpaper, patterned wallpaper, every room different…and patterned upholstry on our living room suite…and patterned curtains. Takes a lot of skill to pull that off; looking back at old photographs it was skill my parents didn’t have. The only saving grace is that my parents weren’t picture people because it would have been bloody hard to hang pictures on it. What do we do now when we decorate? We paint rooms in ‘white, not quite’ shades (I remember when those first came in) and quite often use the same colour throughout the house. It’s so much more forgiving than the wallpaper of my youth, you can pick rugs for the floor, or hang pictures on it, or cushions for the chairs with much greater ease and change them around without having to redecorate because the walls aren’t going to fight with anything. In fact, hopping back to Art Nouveau, you could get a wonderfully fussy Mucha print and hang it on those plain walls and it would be fine, becuase it wouldn’t be fighting with other patterns and colours.

One final clothing analogy…why is the classic evening wear for women the LBD? No points for getting this one right

Too many images?

How much art is too much? Or more to the point, how many images can you take in before you get jaded, like a gourmet who has put away one serving too many of some exotic vegetable?

We live in an insanely visual age, and humans are visual creatures. Back in the old days, before the turn of the millenium, you got your new image fix in one of several ways: you bought books and magazines, you visited galleries or you popped into your local branch of Athena (and probably at some time bought a copy of Tennis Girl). However you did it, your choice was limited to a few dozen things at any one time, and if you left your local Athena with something it was going to have to fight for the limited space on your wall with other images you liked and sometimes you had to swap pictures in and out if you had too many. If you took your own photos you pretty much were limited to 36 at a time (especially if you shot Kodachrome and weren’t hugely wealthy). Making or choosing images was something you thought about.

But now we, as a society, produce images in hithertoo unimaginable quantities. While we used to shoot of 36 frames on a roll of film now we shoot off five, six, maybe more times as many as that on the most mundane subject. Why shouldn’t we, unlike a roll of Kodachrome it doesn’t cost us anything, storage is cheap. I’m sure I remember paying about £8 a roll for Kodachrome in the 80s, using an inflation calculator that works out at £23 now. You can pretty much get a decent 16GB SDHC card for that and put several hundred images on it, and then reuse it again and again. There’s no cost insentive to thinking before shooting any more.

So after we take our photos, what do we do with them? Well we want to show them to people of course, which in the old days involved getting out the projector and running through the roll, or putting them in albums, or if you had shot slide and were feeling really flush and it was a really good image, you got it printed off (I could never afford real Cibachrome). With the digital image we can get a digital photo frame which will cycle through 100s of images without you having to do anything. Or even more popular we can upload them to online image sharing sites. The figures for these are astounding, and slightly alarming. These are Sagan Numbers people..

Flickr – about 6 billion images increasing at the rate of about 2 million every day
Instagram – around 40 billion
Facebook – 250 billion plus
even new boy 500px is claiming around 50 million

That’s a lot of photos, it’s an amazing number of photos, I think it’s an unworkable number of photos, it’s more than you could look at in a lifetime (it takes over a year and a half to look at a million images if you give them a minute each, and don’t take any breaks, or sleep).

Based on their website, I reckon the Rjiksmuseum has under a thousand images on show. The total collection size of the Louvre is only in the region of twenty five thousand pieces and according to Wikipedia the entire collection of the Hermitage in St Petersburg is three million; that’s equivalent to less than 2 days image uploading to Flickr.

Which rather raises the question: when we’ve got so many, how do we find images worth looking at?

When we go to a gallery, or for that matter went into our local branch of Athena) we had a limited range of images through which to browse. In even big galleries the art isn’t all in one huge space, they divide it up into rooms with a smaller number in each and we can wander round and allow our eye to be taken by something. Suppose they were like one of the big image hosting sites, imagine that all thousand paintings and drawings in the Rijksmuseum were arranged along one wall of a huge corridor streatching into the distance: how would we react to that experience? Would we get to the end? At what point would we get image fatigue?

We don’t go to the Tate and expect to find somebody showing us hundreds of photos of their holiday in Benidorm, because we understand that holiday photos are mementos of the trip and are of interest to our circle of friends and family. Self portraits of people getting hammered while at a stag party I would suggest are of interest to even fewer. Ideally, in the manner of the galleries, we need somebody to curate our experience. Somebody to sift out what is visually exciting from the mass of images of cats (not that they can’t be visually exiting), and family holidays. However that’s just not workable; those of us who use online image sharing need to curate the experience of our lives for our viewers. We need to be brutally critical of our own work and ask not only who is going to be interested in the image (and thus where is the right place to post it), but also is it a good image? If we take 50 photos of somebody, something or somewhere, we need to learn that what we must post is the best of them.

Ansel Adams: Beyond Awe and Wonder

What landscape photographer doesn’t look in awe at the work of Ansel Adams? Hell, what landscape photographer, deep down, doesn’t want to beAnsel Adams? It’s not just the amazing landscapes of Yosemite because a quick check on Flickr will prove that half dome doesn’t always look as arresting in photos. Not doing down the Flickr shutterbugs of Yellowstone here, there’s nothing wrong with your photos; they just aren’t (unsurprisingly) as breathtaking as Adams’ ones. Awe and Wonder, that’s what Adams is about.

Or not.

There’s far more to Adams than amazing landscapes; there are the portraits, and the still lives. There’s no awe and wonder in this photo of an egg slicer.

There’s no awe and wonder in this portrait of a young Japanese girl in an internment camp, but there’s magic in both.

In this article there is an account of Adams’ making the image Moonrise, recounting the fact that he essentially made it a grab shot (in as much as one can grab-shoot with an 8×10 camera) with no planning nor use of an exposure meter; it’s one of the ultimate lucky accidents, though of course there were years of skill and experience backing up the luck. The writer also discusses the fact that the still life with the egg slicer was the result of “forethought, careful planning and execution” unlike Moonrise. The story of the latter is in itself about awe and wonder, the photographer struck by vision battling against time and fate (he almost crashed the car stopping to take it) to realise his vision; very romatic, very Caspar David Friedrich. A man in a studio, working carefully, thinking through all the options and getting it just right is less dramatic, more about artistry than romance.

But then what are we to make of the portraits? They’re not street shots, he didn’t see somebody interesting and grab the shot, he posed and lit them as carefully as he did his egg slicer. They don’t put us in the position of the human against the magnificence of nature; they put is right in the heart of what it is to be human. His photos taken inside the Manzanar ‘relocation’ (read ‘concentration’) camp for Japanese Americans in 1943 and 44 are, I think, the supreme example of this. At the time when the attack on Pearl Harbour was still fresh in American minds, and American soldiers were fighting and dying in the pacific, Adams photographed these ordinary people going about their ordinary lives in extraordinary circumstances. They’re not photos of ‘the enemy’, they’re not photos of strange exotic people, they’re photos of ordinary people who a year or two earlier had been part of American communities and who were now living their lives as best they could under extraordinary circumstances. They still show his grasp of light and shadow, but not the dramatic printing for which he is famous, the effect is more subtle; it’s about humanity, not drama.

“The purpose of my work was to show how these people, suffering under a great injustice, and loss of property, businesses and professions, had overcome the sense of defeat and despair by building for themselves a vital community in an arid (but magnificent) environment… All in all, I think this Manzanar Collection is an important historical document, and I trust it can be put to good use.”

There is so much more to Ansel Adams than the man who was so involved with conservation and the Sierra Club, than the man who created such powerful images of the American landscape, than the man who made photos provoking in our reaction to the landscape a sense of awe and wonder. The courage he had in making the Manzar images do more, they make you look at Adams, the man, with awe and wonder.

Finding out more:

Manzanar collection in the Library of Congress
Biography of Ansel Adams
BBC documentary about Adams on Youtube

ScandoCrime, murder, art direction and scandavian interiors porn

Like many in the UK I’m hooked on Nordic crime dramas on the TV. The Killing, Arne Dahl, Wallander, Beck and best of all The Bridge. The plots are great, the acting is amazing and it’s pretty much always difficult to work out who did it before close to the end. But along with the plots and the acting is the design, both the production design in the way they’re shot and, of course, those interiors. Almost nobody in a ScandoCrime drama seems to live in a house or apartment I don’t want!

To take those in order, the production design is always wonderful, The Bridge has a great colour sense, muted palet pretty much throughout with Saga’s car and coat sometimes the only splash of colour in the shot. Okay, with something as magnificent as the Oresund Bridge to keep using as the backdrop the visuals were always going to be something special though. There is also great use of the rural locations, either eerie empty birchwoods with treetrunks as far as the eye can see or vast open expanses of farmland or moor with nothing between you and the mountains on the horizon.


(image from https://burntretina.wordpress.com/2014/01/04/the-bridge-is-not-a-documentary/)

They also all seem to have wonderful kitchens, none of the pokey ‘ready-meal focussed’ kitchens of most UK detectives but airey open expanses of blonde wood and shiney worktops. Generally these lead through into living rooms full of bare floors, stylish furnishings and a feeling that somebody cared about how they looked. Well, okay, the production designer did care about how they looked but you get the feeling the characters do to. It’s all about light and space, big windows letting the clear norther light stream into the rooms: okay so there’s probably a nasty psychopath out there looking in through the windows but if I had that house there wouldn’t be, alright? Even Beck, who lives alone in a city centre flat (and has strange oblique converstations with the old boy on the balcony next door) manages to have a living room you’d be happy to come home. And as for that amazing house with the long lounge/diningroom/kitchen Wallander has with huge windows looking out across the fjiord…