We’re not good at showers, here in the UK. Visit a lot of our bed and breakfast places and you’ll find yourself having to soap up and rinse off under a pathetic trickle of water that emerges from a very small shower-head with an array of tiny pinhead-sized holes. Usually quite a few of these are blocked up with limescale and it’s often more like standing in heavy mist than it is like being showered.
You’ll have gathered from this that I like a good powerful shower, and usually I get one, but last week the tube that runs inside the metal shower hose split, and most of the water wasn’t making it more than an inch or so upwards. But it’s an easy thing to fix so we got a new hose from Wilkinson and Geoff put it on. Two days later the tube in that one split, even worse this time, and for the last few days we’ve been trying to shower under the equivalent of a small leak in the plumbing.
This morning involved a trip to somewhere that sells shower hoses of a quality that lasts longer than a couple of days (never buy one of these from Wilkinsons!), and you’ve no idea how wonderful it was to get a decent shower at last. I stood there, water cascading steamily over me, and thought how the hot shower is one of life’s great, under-appreciated pleasures.
A selection of Andre Kertesz’ still life Polaroids
I went to the Royal Academy recently to see Eyewitness: Hungarian Photography in the 20th Century. I so enjoyed this exhibition – the Hungarian photographers have a style and visual language that’s very close to what I love to do myself. I’ve always adored Andre Kertesz’ work – he’s got to be in my top ten list of favourite photographers – and there was lots of it here as well as loads of other amazing stuff.
I like pretty much everything Kertesz has ever done, but my absolute favourites are the series of Polaroids he took towards the end of his life. In many ways Kertesz is a sad figure – after considerable early success in Hungary and Paris, he emigrated to New York and then war broke out in Europe leaving him unable to go back. Unfortunately New Yorkers didn’t appreciate his distinctive style and approach, and although he continued to work for magazines there were frequent disputes with editors and cancelled commissions, and he also found himself too busy to work on his personal projects. It wasn’t a happy time for him – he never really learned to speak English very well, which added to his isolation, and he always felt like an outsider. Many of his New York photographs reflect the sadness of that time.
His wife Elizabeth, whom he adored, died in 1977. There’s a terribly poignant photograph called “Flowers for Elizabeth”, taken while his wife was in hospital. In the book ‘Kertesz on Kertesz’ he says: “I wanted the apartment to be painted for her when she came back, but she never came back.”
More or less confined to his apartment, and depressed after Elizabeth’s death, he started playing with a Polaroid camera that was lying around. In his own words:
Years ago I was given a little primitive Polaroid camera and I didn’t like it – it was for snapshots. But one day I took it out. I had discovered, in the window of a shop, a little glass bust, and I was very moved because it resembled my wife- the shoulder and the neck were Elizabeth. For months and months I looked at the bust in the window, and finally I bought it…….And I took it home, put it in my window, and began shooting and shooting with the Polaroid camera – in the morning, in the afternoon, in different lights. Something came out of this little incident, this little object. They made a book of all the pictures I took. It is dedicated to my wife.
Kertesz on Kertesz, 1985
I think these photos are small and exquisite treasures; they represent everything I’d like to be able to do with still life. I’ve been trying to get a copy of the book, which is out of print, for some time now and was thrilled to get an email from Amazon this morning saying that it’s on its way – I can’t wait to see it.
After going round the exhibition, Eileen and I sat outside in the forecourt for a couple of hours, talking, people-watching, enjoying the evening sun, and taking photos. Here are a few.
Buildings reflected in a sculpture by Jeff Koons, at the Royal Academy
Some of you may know that I’ve recently become a Mortal Muse. One of my Muse-ly duties is to choose a photo from each of the three Mortal Muse Flickr groups once a fortnight. This is a lot harder than you’d think and has involved much chewing of lower lip, releasing of troubled sighs, and eating of chocolate. I should have known this wasn’t the job for someone who suffers from terminal indecision on a regular basis. (And I’m going to have to do it once a fortnight!)
It did make me start thinking about what it was that made me look closer at something and what kind of images were making it onto my shortlist. This is all personal stuff of course, and I’m not claiming my criteria are the right ones, or that anyone should try to fit in with them. Nonetheless, they are mine and I thought it might be interesting to figure out exactly what they are, because I’m not sure I know myself. Here are some thoughts:
I wanted to find something a little different. Clichés are clichés for good reason, and a dandelion head is a beautiful thing even if it has been photographed a million times – and then some more. But the problem with a cliché is that it doesn’t mark you out from the crowd unless you do it more beautifully and more stunningly than anyone else has. And sometimes somebody does. But most of the time I moved quickly past anything there was a lot of.
I saw some wonderful shots of babies and children, and I may yet choose some of these. On the whole, though, these shots are more meaningful to parents and relatives than they are to anyone else, and the same goes for wedding and engagement shots. If I choose something like this, it will be because it goes beyond that meaning and says something universal – or maybe just because it’s really funny (like this shot – which was chosen by another Muse before I got to it).
I’m getting into little idiosyncrasies now, but I hate it when people put large watermarks on their pictures. I can’t look at anything but the watermark and it really puts me off. I know it’s not nice to have your pictures stolen, but if you put them on as low-res shots, nobody can do much with them anyway. And did I say it really puts me off?
And finally lots of photos were really nice – but just nice, really. I felt the need of something more, some undefinable ingredient that stopped me in my tracks.
It's a well-known fact that lots of this stuff makes decision-making much easier
That ruled out loads, but still left me with a lot more to choose from. It’s much harder to say what it was about a picture that made me take a better look than it is to say what made me pass on by. I’ve just tried making a list but that didn’t work at all, because the shots that spoke to me did so because it wasn’t easy to lump them together in any kind of way. They might have a certain mood or atmosphere or gorgeously beautiful light, might be funny or quirky (I do favour things that make me smile), could be unusual takes on usual things or interestingly composed, or they might show a wonderful appreciation of colour. And of course, so much of it depended on what I brought to the picture myself – my own associations and feelings and memories.
When I was choosing from the pool that has a fortnightly theme, I did like it a lot when people interpreted that theme in a way you might not immediately think of. And then sometimes I liked something quite ordinary simply because it was so beautifully done. I think, on the whole, I’m drawn to things that are a little different, but the difference can manifest in all sorts of ways.
The hardest bit came when I did have a shortlist, because sometimes there was something I loved that I couldn’t choose because that person had been featured too recently, or it belonged to another Muse (I can choose these, but it doesn’t seem right somehow), or it was too similar to another Muse’s choice. And then I felt sad for the ones that got away.
It feels strange and a little disquieting to be One Who Decides. I want everyone to feel huge pleasure in their own photography and creativity, even if the result isn’t always something I’d make my personal choice – I’d like everyone to have that gold star feeling. (I know how chuffed I was when one of mine got picked many months ago.) And there are all these pictures I’d like to choose but can’t, because I only get to do this once a fortnight and I can only pick three. I want to leave messages saying, ‘I nearly chose yours!’
All I can say is, thank heavens there are nine of us, with a wide variety of tastes and interests that lead to an interesting mix of styles and subject matter – otherwise I think the responsibility would be just too much!
We recently had our second wedding anniversary and, as is our custom (although obviously not a very long-established one), we booked a table for lunch at the restaurant where we held our reception. So there we were, all dressed up and ready to go, and out the front door and heading for the car…….or so I thought. We don’t have a driveway so the car can sometimes be parked a bit of a distance away. Still, some way down the road I began to think that this was much further than usual and I said to Geoff, ‘Where is the car?’ ‘Opposite the house’, he replied. ‘So why are we walking this way?’, I asked. ‘You’ll see’, he said, with a small smile and a glint of something in his eye.
I kept going with the questions but obviously wasn’t going to get an answer. Eventually we ended up at the main road and crossed it, then he stopped. I looked at him. ‘We’re waiting for a car’, he said. I started mentally flipping through the options of who might be giving us a lift – there weren’t many and none seemed likely. I looked at him again. ‘Just watch the road. You’ll know which car it is when you see it’, he said.
And suddenly, there it was. A 1958 Chevrolet Bel Air looking very out of place among the usual Friday lunchtime traffic. And what a car! I don’t get at all excited about cars usually, but I do love old ones – they have so much character and quality about them. And this was a beauty – roughly the same age as me, but in considerably better nick, inside and out. It was driven by Geoff’s friend Stuart, who provides classic cars for weddings when he’s not being a driving instructor – a group of them had been out drinking a week or so before and Geoff had hatched this plan to surprise me.
As you can see, he was mightily pleased with himself, and I do think he had every reason to be – even if we did have to come home on the bus!
Check out the fluffy dice hanging from the rear-view mirror!
Stuart – our chauffeur for the day
And if you want proof that using a wide-angle lens makes things further away look smaller than they really are, here it is. Sorry, Stuart – if I’d had longer I’d have stretched you to normal height in Photoshop.
My ebook is nearly ready to go, and I’ve been giving the sales page a lot of thought recently. I want to write it in a way that’s true to myself but might still entice somebody (maybe even more than one somebody) to actually buy it. I really hate these hugely-long, yellow-highlighted, online sales letters full of sensational promises that no product could ever fulfil, but in the back of my mind a little voice has been saying ‘but that’s what you have to do if you want to sell your book’.
So I was absolutely delighted this morning to get a subscription reminder notice from Philosophy Now magazine, in which the first paragraph goes like this:
Your subscription to Philosophy Now ran out with Issue 83, and ever since then we’ve been inconsolable. “What”, we ask ourselves rhetorically, “is the point of continuing? Issue 85 is really good, but the achievement seems hollow, futile, if you aren’t going to read it…” Bring meaning back to our lives: if you send us a cheque for £15.50 we’ll send you the next six issues and I’ll be able to wean my colleagues off their anti-depressants….
…..Rick Lewis, Editor
I only let the subscription lapse because I’m very, very broke at the moment, but this letter means that I’ll be renewing the moment I have some spare cash. It not only made my day – I laughed out loud when I read it – it taught me a few things too about how connecting with people gets far better results than an in-your-face sales letter ever could.
Anyone who knows me well also knows that I like my bed and am not in the habit of leaping out of it at anything other than a civilised time, and even then after at least an hour of leisurely reading with a cup of tea. But this morning I made an exception, and was in my car and heading over to Alexandra’s garden in Faversham before 8.00am. Alexandra* has a gorgeous garden that’s just begging to be photographed, and we’d been trying to arrange this date for quite a while.
There’s a photographic version of sod’s law that says the light is always at its best the day before you get there, and this was one of those times. For most of the last week I’ve been waking up to beautiful sunshine and blue skies; the sun has usually disappeared by the time morning gets going in earnest, but has stayed around long enough for a potential photo session. This morning – of course – I opened my eyes to dull, flat light and grey skies and realised it was going to be pretty tough to get any decent images at all.
The only thing you can do when the light is like this is to keep the sky out of things altogether and concentrate on small, intimate areas of garden where you at least have the advantage of there being no harsh shadows. Even so, I’m not about to burst with excitement at the photos I’ve got. In a bid to add some extra interest to what would otherwise have been some very dull shots because of the light, I took quite a few of them using the Lensbaby – for the same reason, I’ve added the Orton effect to a couple of them. Even so, you still can’t expect to make a silk purse from a sow’s ear.
(If you haven’t heard of the Orton technique, or you have but you don’t know how to do it, I wrote a tutorial on it a while ago for the Mortal Muses site. I can’t get a unique url that will send you to the right place, but if you want to find it, go to www.mortalmuses.com, click on Muse University in the left-hand side panel, then scroll down several posts till you come to mine.)
Alexandra has two of these wonderful dog statues in the garden. I had to do huge amounts of processing to get this image to look good at all. It’s had curves, a solid colour adjustment layer, warming photo filter, and vignetting applied, to mention just a few of the things I did to it. It still isn’t great, but probably the best I was ever going to get in the dull light.
She also has the real thing; isn’t he lovely? – unfortunately I can’t remember his name. I’ve also managed to mess up with the focussing, which is centred on his collar rather than his eyes, as it should be. It’s been a while since I’ve used my Lensbaby and my lack of practice is showing.
The garden has loads of lovely little details like these:
There are some amazing and interesting flowers and plants, too. My ignorance of plant names and species is extensive, but I can tell you this is some kind of hydrangea. The flowers are fascinating – like little parasols with dainty flower heads dangling from them. I think I could have done with a bit more depth of field here (it’s probably wise not to employ me to do photography early in the morning before my brain’s booted up), but the soft pinks are rather nice.
But my favourite shots of the day were these wonderful leaves, which had the most amazing colours in them. No, please don’t ask me what they are – I have no idea! I processed the two shots a bit differently, with the first one kept very soft and the second with more sharpness and saturation. I’m not sure which one I like best; I think they both work, in different ways.
We’re going to try again soon, in the hope of better light next time. The reason for all these grey skies, according to an email I got the other day, is because Summer has failed to install….
404 error: Season not found. Season “Summer” cannot be located. The season you are looking for might have been removed, had its name changed or is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later……
Maybe we could install “Mediterranean Summer” instead…that would be nice. Any techies out there?
*Alexandra is an author who writes under the name of Nina Bell. She has four books in print, on the theme of family dramas, and you can find details of them on her website: www.ninabell.co.uk
And if you’ve ever wondered about getting to grips with Twitter, do read Alexandra’s blog post on it – it’s one of the best I’ve ever come across on telling you why you should join in and how it all works. You can find her blog on the website link above.
If you stop to think about it, life is made up of repeating patterns. Anything that becomes a routine or a habit is also a recurring pattern, and it’s these patterns that make up the bulk of our lives. We need them – just imagine a life where no pattern is ever repeated and think how chaotic that would be. So rhythms and patterns feel reassuring and secure and maybe that’s why we’re drawn to spotting them and photographing them.
Having said that, I realise that patterns are not something I tend to photograph much; if I do, it’s usually because of something else that goes along with them, like colours, or shadows, or a subject that has the pattern as a background. Where there’s a very regular pattern, to me it works best as a backdrop that makes the other features of the photo more interesting. And sometimes when I’ve photographed patterns it’s more of an echo effect than a neatly repeating one. In the image below, the pattern can be found in all the arch shapes, but they repeat at different angles and sizes and so it’s not as obvious to spot at first glance.
Where there’s a more obvious and regular pattern to be found, it’s usually the small (or sometimes large) interruptions and variations in a pattern that make it worth looking at. That’s probably why we prefer handmade things to machine-made ones: there’s a deadly, clone-like perfection to the patterns that a machine produces, but something handmade has little irregularities and variations in its patterns that keep it interesting while still retaining the satisfying feeling of the ongoing basic pattern.
In the photo below, the shadows are all slightly different and the building facade has little differences in it that stop it becoming boring – some blinds are up and some are down, some of the plaster is smooth, some is stained or damaged.
Sometimes what makes the patterns more interesting, too, is where you have several repeating patterns together, as in the Cathedral ceiling image at the top. Patterns combined hold more interest than one on its own but still give that satisfying, repetitive effect.
If we think about it in terms of life, we need a foundation of repeating patterns to form a structure to how we live. The routines and habits that we have form a secure base for the rest of our lives to rest on. So sleeping at night, waking during the day, brushing your teeth and washing your face in the morning, doing the laundry at the weekends, and so on is a good foundation that makes life run smoothly. If we have that, then now and again we can interrupt the pattern without repercussions – it doesn’t matter if the laundry doesn’t get done this week because you’re off to Paris for the weekend. It would matter if it didn’t get done for several weeks in a row.
So interrupting and varying the pattern makes life more interesting, but not having patterns at all would make it unliveable. Patterns hold things together and make life cohesive, but it’s the irregularities that make it interesting. The trick in life, as in photography, is to find the balance between the two.
Despite the fabulous colours in the image above, it just doesn’t hold my interest.
This has got me wondering if the kind of patterns we’re drawn to and the way we photograph them are reflected in our attitudes to routine? I know I need a certain amount of routine, but more than a little and I find it gets stifling very quickly. I also try to create variations within the routines I follow as much as I can; for example, taking a different route to a regular destination. I think most of my ‘pattern’ images reflect this: I don’t have many that form straightforward, clearly-repeating patterns and, where I’ve taken photos like this, I don’t really like them. We can’t help but show our selves in our photography, so I wonder – if you looked, would you find the same thing?
Those of you who know anything about Spike Milligan might also know that before he died, and with his typical brand of humour, he asked that his gravestone bear the inscription “I told you I was ill”. He now lies buried in the graveyard of Winchelsea Church, and he almost got his way with the inscription, but it’s in Irish Gaelic instead of English. The Chichester Diocese got a bit uppity about having the English version on the stone, and after two years of wrangling they finally said the equivalent of ‘oh, alright then, but only if you do it in Irish’. (Milligan held an Irish passport)
A couple of weekends ago we went to Winchelsea to see it. The excuse – and it was purely an excuse for a day out – was that Geoff had completed a cryptic crossword that was themed around the quote and he thought it would be fun to be photographed beside the headstone holding the completed crossword.
When we got there we couldn’t find it and it turned out that, in a trick of fate and timing that I’m sure would have pleased Spike enormously, the gravestone had been removed just a few days beforehand. His wife had just died and it had been taken away to have her name engraved on the stone, so all that was left to us was a mound of unmarked earth – but we took the photo anyway and we managed to buy a postcard of how it ought to have looked.
That was the only disappointment of the day, and there were lots of compensations. Before we started looking for the grave, we had some lunch in a beautiful little beer garden belonging to the pub in Winchelsea, and I found this bench quietly being taken over by nature.
Winchelsea Church had the most amazing stained glass windows. The photographs don’t do them justice – the colours were softer, lighter and more pastel than stained glass usually is, but I had trouble getting that to show in the images.
And we found the grave of someone called Seddon Wildeblood, which sounds like something out of an eighteenth century romantic novel. Wonderful!
Then we went to Winchelsea Beach, which is a huge expanse of sand, sea and pebbles, stretching for miles and only broken up by the wooden groynes that criss-cross it.
There was a powerful wind that seemed ideal for a bit of kite flying. Unfortunately it was so strong that, after a while, the lines of the kite got tangled up into a tight, Gordian knot that was impossible to undo with the wind whipping everything around, including my hair over my face. In the end we bundled it all up and threw it in the back of the car, to be slowly unpicked later at home.
I played around with some abstract water and sand photos too.
Then we finished up with tea and cakes in Rye, and staying true to my inability to remember to photograph things before I eat them, I ate them and forgot to photograph them – but I will tell you it was one of the nicest slices of coffee and walnut cake I’ve ever had.
I love books; I’ve always loved books, with a passion. I read all the time and can easily get through a book in a day (and do other things as well). But as much as I love the content of books, what I like equally much is their physicality – I love the weight of them in my hand, the lovely squared-off heft of them. I love the way they smell: every book smells different and each one is enticing in its own way. I love the feel of the pages, whether they’re tissue-thin or thick as card; matt, or smooth and glossy. I love shiny new books, for their perfect edges and untouched quality, and I love old, tattered books, for their faded covers and soft, much-handled, pages. (Kindle, eat your heart out)
So perhaps it’s not surprising that I’ve had a yearning to make my own books for some time now. Eventually I’d like to combine my photography projects with hand-made books so that I could create beautiful, individual works of art with each element enhancing the other.
That’s for the future, and you’ve got to start somewhere. I haven’t made it to a book-binding class yet but I have made my first ever book. I know it’s not perfect, and it doesn’t have any of my photos in it, but I made it and I’m proud of it.
The backstory is this: it was Geoff’s 50th birthday in March and I wanted to do something special for him. I didn’t have much money so it had to be something that was meaningful but didn’t cost much. So I came up with the idea of making a small book called ’50 Things I Love About You’ – one for every year of his life. I themed it around rabbits because he adores rabbits. I had a lot of fun putting it together, although it was more time-consuming and challenging than I thought it would be.
I made the pages out of cream luggage labels from Paperchase, and each page was decorated with pieces of rabbit confetti (found on ebay), painstakingly glued on, one by one. I managed to find a phone charm in the shape of a rabbit, and then I found a key with a little tag with ‘My heart’ on it on a card-making site. The other components were things I either had lying around the house or found in a card-making supply shop. And on every page, I wrote one, two or three things that I love about him. (The first 30 or so were easy; the next ten were more difficult; and by the time I got into the 40s I was having to think very hard indeed – and wishing he was a lot younger.)
It didn’t work out quite as I had hoped. The luggage labels seemed like a good idea at the time, but they had metal eyelets in the holes and when they were piled up together they became much thicker at one end than I’d anticipated, and that required a complete rethink about how I was going to hold everything together. There were other problems too, but I got it to work well enough in the end.
That all happened back in March so why am I bringing it up now? Well today I got delivery of the most gorgeous book called ‘Book + Art: handcrafting artist’s books’. It’s full of stunning and inspiring artist’s books, plus just enough of the practical how-to stuff on binding to be useful without being boring. (Rather appropriately,I bought it using an Amazon voucher I was given for my own birthday.) I’ve only flipped through it so far, but it’s fired me up already and I’ve realised this is something I so want to do. Combining my love of photography and my love of books just has to be the way to go.
And, oh yes, in case you’re itching to know: did he like it? Well, I did have to pass the tissues so I think the answer’s ‘yes’.
I come across so many good things as I move round the internet that I thought I’d do a series of occasional posts on the best of them. This is the first one.
I love treehouses; I always wanted one but never got it (maybe because we never lived in a house with a garden that had big enough trees). If you’re like me, satisfy your treehouse craving at ‘inhabitat’ website. These are beyond anything I could ever have imagined.
David Peat’s street photography is wonderful – humorous and touching. Although he’d taken thousands of street photos over the years, he’d never had any of them printed or shown bigger than a tiny thumbnail on a contact sheet. When he was diagnosed with a terminal illness at the age of 64, he started sorting through the negatives and the best are now on show in Scotland. What a shame it took a life-threatening illness to encourage him to share them with the world.
If you’ve ever needed to find the owner of a Flickr picture you’ve saved, this could be really useful.
And if you’re a woman of a certain age, and have wondered about doing some self-portraits, have a look at Patricia Lay-Dorsey for inspiration (click on Portfolios, and then Falling Into Place). If she can do it, so can you.