exhibition

That strange time between Christmas and New Year…..

Arches, Natural History Museum

Another visit to London this week; my friend Corinna was taking a well-deserved break from running her company (Hairy Goat Photography Tours), and we thought we’d have a day out.  It started exceedingly well, with tea and some absurdly good cakes in a small cafe in South Kensington.  Amazingly we managed to sit outside for an hour and a half, which is pretty good going for December.  It did get a bit chilly after a while and we made our way to the Natural History Museum to see the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.

We were a bit taken aback by the fact that the queues just to get into the building were backed up as far as the road, but a security person suggested we try the side entrance.  That was much better and amazingly there was no queue at all for the exhibition itself; most people were on an entertain-the-kids-during-the-school-break mission.

There was some stunningly good photography. Sometimes I forget how much enjoyment there is to be found in photographs that just give huge amounts of visual pleasure.  With all the emphasis in the courses I do on everything having to ‘say’ something or have some deep meaning, it can be a real relief just to look at stuff you simply enjoy looking at.  If you want to see some of it for yourself, have a look at the Natural History Museum’s webpages.  I have to say that the photos don’t look anything like as good there as they do when you see them much larger and  backlit, but you can get some idea.

When we came out, we spent some time photographing the building itself. It’s an amazing building, quite incredible inside, and more like a cathedral than an exhibition space.  On the outside, it’s composed of brick with a kind of pinkish tinge, with blue brickwork inserted in patterns.  It’s a truly fabulous building that’s somehow reminiscent of something that Escher might have drawn.  There was also a small fair and ice rink outside, so we absolutely had to go on the merry-go-round – well you do, don’t you?  Sadly, despite a lot of trying, I failed to get any good shots of people on the ice rink.  There were just too many people to be able to isolate anything interesting and I couldn’t get a fast enough shutter speed anyway.

We rounded off the day very nicely with a Thai meal in a nearby restaurant. It’s a strange sort of time, this hiatus between Christmas and New Year, and I often find it quite difficult and unsettling.  It’s even more so this year because of our forthcoming move,  and I feel I should be busy organising lots of things.  The trouble is that everywhere has closed down for the duration and I’m left floating in limbo for the time being.  It feels like that pause you get on a roller-coaster just as it gets to the top and hesitates before plunging down scarily fast………..

Escalator to the Earth Zone

This escalator takes you up, quite literally, into the Earth Zone.

Bridge, Natural History Museum

Ceiling, Natural History Museum

Hall, Natural History Museum

Steps, Natural History Museum

Facade, Natural History Museum

Merry go round

Turbanned man and daughter

I loved seeing this man with a turban and his little daughter; they were both having a lot of fun.

Horses, merry go round

Charleston Farmhouse – living at its most creative

Dahlias, Charleston Farmhouse

We visited Charleston Farmhouse, in Sussex, a week or so ago. This was the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, who were part of the Bloomsbury group of artists and writers, which included people such as Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster.

Inside, the house is large and rambling, and just about everything has been crafted and decorated by its inhabitants.  The interior is fundamentally quite shabby, but every surface – walls, floors, fireplaces, furniture – has been decoratively painted.  The furniture is a motley collection of different styles but it’s been covered with decorative designs, and old chairs were re-upholstered with hand painted textiles.  Lampshades are made out of pottery and attached to the ceiling with wires in a Heath-Robinson-ish sort of way.  Every inch of the place displays the creativity of its inhabitants.  Paintings – their own and others – cover the walls, and one room is lined with old books.

It was a place where artists and writers came to stay, to sit by open fires and talk of life and ideas late into the night, and to relax, play and paint in the walled garden and grounds.

What struck me most was what an idyllic life it seemed to be. They did have some money problems – although coming from a fairly gentrified background this was all relative – but they used their creativity to make a wonderful, welcoming home out of what must have been a rather scruffy old farmhouse.  Instead of employing interior designers, or buying expensive furniture, they used their own skills and talents to create one of the most individual places I’ve ever seen.  And they pretty much did whatever they wanted to do there – painting, writing, creating, talking.

They also made a stunningly lovely walled garden. Walking into it through the door in the wall takes you into a magical space – it’s criss-crossed by narrow paths which are almost hidden by the luxurious spilling over of vividly coloured flowers and plants.  In many places the plants grow up to shoulder-height so that you only see the bit of the garden you’re in and the rest becomes an intriguing mystery.  It was:

“a summer garden for playing and painting, an enchanted retreat from London life. As Vanessa Bell wrote in 1936, “The house seems full of young people in very high spirits, laughing a great deal at their own jokes… lying about in the garden which is simply a dithering blaze of flowers and butterflies and apples.”

I love that phrase ‘dithering blaze’, don’t you?  It sums it up entirely – a cottage garden of the best kind, an untidy abundance of everything summer has to offer.

I’m sure it wasn’t quite as idyllic as it looks to us now, but I love the idea that these people created the kind of life they wanted, doing what was important to them, following their passions, and making a life where being creative wasn’t a thing apart, but spilled over into every area of their lives.

Unfortunately, photography isn’t allowed inside the house, and the garden was so full of people on the sunny August Sunday when we went, that photography on anything other than a fairly small scale was almost impossible.  However, I did manage to get these small vignettes that I hope give a little flavour of how it was.

Sculpture, in Charleston garden

Sunflowers, Charleston garden

Daisies, Charleston garden

Hose, Charleston Garden

Snails, Charleston garden

Kertesz, the Polaroids, and the Royal Academy

 

Kertesz polaroids

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 Jeff Koons' sculpture

Buildings reflected in a sculpture by Jeff Koons, at the Royal Academy

Cooling down

Splash!

Colour reflections

Last of the evening light

Evening sun

Poppies

Geoff found an amazing field of poppies on his way to work one day, and we went out there yesterday to take some photos.  A fifteen-foot strip at the edge of the wheat field has been turned over to the poppies and other wildflowers and it makes a heart-lifting display of colour.

Poppies and purple flower

Poppy field

Poppy field

What I find so difficult in these situations is thinking of a fresh way of photographing something that’s very definitely a cliche.  On OCA*’s forum the words ‘pretty pictures’ are only usually mentioned in a sneering, dismissive way; if a photo doesn’t have an idea or a message behind it, or at the very least look a bit grungy, it’s not thought to be worth the taking.  It’s hard not to be affected by this attitude, and to feel that you’re somehow doing something wrong if you just want to celebrate how lovely the world can look.

I think the truth of the matter is that it’s really only the tutors and a very small number of students who are vocal in rejecting something on the grounds of it being simply a beautiful scene, no more, no less.  The rest of us – I believe – take pleasure in looking at and photographing a wide variety of images even if what we’re ultimately aiming at is to produce work with some greater meaning and a bit of depth behind it.

I went to the Cult of Beauty exhibition at the V&A in London recently.  The Aesthetic Movement was concerned only with beauty and they aimed to make everything around them a delight to the eye.  They painted, of course, but they also designed furniture and rooms and clothes and clocks and books – everything around them was made lovely.  It was a refreshing change to see something like this after overdosing on art that is often pretentious, frequently gives no visual satisfaction, and usually dwells on ugliness and angst.

I wouldn’t want all art to be of the kind the Aesthetes created – it would get boring if this was all there was.  There was nothing to discuss or ruminate over after seeing the exhibition; no new ideas, nothing to make you think.  But there must be a place in life somewhere for ‘art for art’s sake’ and making things of beauty and offering them to the world is surely a worthy enough thing.  There’s plenty of misery in the world, but a field of poppies can still make you feel it’s good to be alive.

I once read an account of a holocaust survivor, who came into possession of a tomato at one point during his incarceration.  Despite being desperately hungry, he didn’t eat the tomato immediately because he was overwhelmed by its rich, orange-red colour.  In the world of grey in which he was living, his soul was as hungry for colour as his body was for food, and he spent some time simply looking at it and drinking in its colour.  We need beauty that badly.

Poppy field 3

*Open College of the Arts, where I’m studying a distance learning course.

The Turner Centre, Margate

A friend and I went to the new Turner Centre in Margate last week.  From the outside the building is veering towards the ugly – rather blank, cube-like shapes with one edge elongated into a pointed roof – but inside is much better.  What immediately grabs your eye is the huge window overlooking the sea.  Everyone is drawn to it and I spent some time photographing people as they looked out.  The image above is taken on the second floor and I’m really happy with the way I’ve caught this elderly couple standing just to the side of the open circle.

In the picture below, I liked the huge wall of mirror that extends to each side of the window and the way it distorts everything.  The woman in the wheelchair was an added bonus that adds a sense of scale.

I enjoyed most of the exhibits and I particularly liked the kinetic sculpture with lights, although I don’t have a picture of that.  I also liked the work shown below; it reminds me of a flock of birds wheeling through the sky.  What look like shadows falling beneath each point are actually marks drawn on the wall in pencil.

What’s really great is that, for the moment at least, they’re allowing you to take photos inside the centre.  It’s a refreshing change from the usual prohibitions.  A friend told me he once tried to photograph the artist’s statement that was fixed on the wall next to the work it referred to and was stopped by a security guard.  When he asked if he could copy it by writing down what was said instead, the guard said yes, that would be fine!  I sometimes think the world is crazy.

Most of my shots were of the window and people:

When I posted this one on Flickr, someone suggested that it could be cropped to a square shape to emphasise the window circle, and that the figures would be better turned into silhouettes.  Although I feel it loses the sense of space I was aiming to capture, I think it really works like this (and also loses the person who’s crept in on the right side – I didn’t notice them till after I’d edited the picture).  It’s always interesting to see what variations you can get out of one image by cropping it in different ways.

When I went over to look out of the window myself, my eye was caught by a row of brightly coloured flags on the harbour.  I just had to walk down there afterwards and take a picture.  I do love these colours; they’re so cheerful.

Before we left, we had some fun browsing in the gift shop.  We decided to leave behind the ‘I’d rather be in Margate’ mugs but my friend did buy a rather stylish giant egg-timer filled with lime green sand.