Could The Euro Turn Your Pets Gay?

This blog has so far largely been about love and wonder, and I’d like to keep it that way… but I’m going to veer slightly from that path today.

I find the Daily Mail such a repellent organ of fear that to see it satirized here, so brilliantly, made me laugh so much that I felt compelled to pass it on. The title of this post is one of my favorites but I could have chosen dozens from my time spent with it so far.

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What’s At The Centre

So the internet has graced me this week with serendipity and discovery. Natasha forwarded me a link, previously forwarded to her, of the website of a woman who has instantly become my new favourite modern artist. Although I don’t think I’ve had a favourite modern artist before, so maybe she’ll be my first favourite modern artist.

Either way, my mind exploded when I saw her work. Her practice seems to consist of dreaming up some of the most charmingly ambitious, cosmic and inventive human responses to the awesome (in the original sense of the word) universe… and then doing them. I’ve only seen her website, but in a way feel like I don’t need to see any more, an exhibition or whatever… her ideas are the thing, and they are communicated very clearly and concisely through that medium. Actually the ideas are not the only thing, it’s also the fact that she has made these things, dreamed up the sort of ideas I used to have in stoned conversations in my youth (except more inventive than mine were) when anything seemed possible – ‘what if we were able to take this thing, then stitch it on to that, stretch it all out to a million times it’s length and then… (toke)… That would be AMAZING!’…

But of course you always wake up the next morning and go into college and forget about it… or I did. Not Katie Paterson. She heads off to Iceland, records the sound of a glacier moving, gathers buckets of glacial meltwater (from the same glacier) then comes back and makes a (physical) record of the sound of the glacier by refreezing the water in some kind of press, which then plays on a record player, once, while melting. Fucking genius. My favourite piece on her website is this:

“E.M.E (Earth-Moon-Earth) is a form of radio transmission whereby messages are sent in Morse code from earth, reflected from the surface of the moon, and then received back on earth. The moon reflects only part of the information back – some is absorbed in its shadows, ‘lost’ in its craters.

For this work, Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata has been translated into Morse code and sent to the moon via E.M.E. Returning to earth ‘fragmented’ by the moon’s surface, it has been re-translated into a new score, the gaps and absences becoming intervals and rests. In the exhibition space the new ‘moon–altered’ score plays on a Disklavier grand piano.”

I love it, and I’ve been reflecting on why I feel that way when so much conceptual modern art leaves me cold.

This is what I’ve arrived at: it is totally outward looking. It is about the universe; it has nature at it’s centre and is imbued with a sense of wonder – at the same time as being rigorously scientific and precise. This strikes me as so different from the art du jour of the last few decades, so often self-obsessed, egotistical, knowingly clever without really saying anything of value… so emotionless so much of it. Maybe I’m an old romantic, but if you offer me the majesty of the universe or the filthy remnants of someone else’s bedroom, I know what makes my heart sing.

So I’d been reflecting on this for a few days, when Simone sent me a link to a TED talk of Alain de Botton where he talks about just this:

The part I was really interested in was this:

“Another thing about modern society and why it causes us anxiety is that we have nothing at it’s centre that is non-human. We are the first society to be living in a world where we don’t worship anything other than ourselves. We think very highly of ourselves, and so we should, we’ve put people on the moon, and done all sorts of extraordinary things, and so we tend to worship ourselves, our heroes are human heroes. That’s a very new situation. Most other societies have had right at their centre the worship of something transcendent, a god, a spirit, a natural force, the universe, whatever it is, something else that is being worshipped.”

I’m not a religious person (or maybe I am), but I remember as a child looking up at the night sky and feeling tiny, but feeling part of something bigger too… a feeling of reassurance and maybe even belonging. As I’ve grown up I’ve lost that, at least most of the time, and I think as a society maybe we have too. It seems a bad thing to have lost.

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Small But Perfectly Formed

I have fallen in love, with a small book; Wake, by Adam Jeppesen. It’s been out a couple of years but I only just bought it, after seeing some pictures on a blog.

It is a simple book with no gimmicks or striking design elements, just a sequence of pictures and a sweet piece of writing – seemingly an extract of an email conversation, but which you could also call a poem – at the beginning, which gently sets the scene for the beautiful dreamlike narrative of the photographs.

I hadn’t realised that a group of images so dispersed in time, place and physical subject matter could be brought together to create such a profound, articulate and meaningful whole, and this is a really exciting discovery. Photography is of course by definition fragmentary, so in a sense all bodies of work have something of this quality I suppose – creating a sense of continuity, consonance, and meaning out of disparate shards. But usually in photobooks that have this much coherence and unity of feeling there is either a a more formal or individually stylistic approach, or a much more tightly focused (physical) subject matter.

And perhaps that’s the thing: I think the way Wake pulls this off is that it’s subject matter is the feeling that it points to, which sort of lingers behind or between the images – in the sequence. It is the cumulative effect of the images and the interplay between them that creates that feeling. The magic of the book is that through its strange juxtapositions and visual echoes, it creates that vivid sense of shifting reality we remember when waking from a dream. Personally I often find those disorientated dream memories really moving for some reason, and so for me this book is pure joy (two novels I love for similar reasons are The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro and Number 9 Dream by David Mitchell).

According to the captions, which plainly state the country, place and date, the photographs were taken over a period of six years, across the globe. At first this bald stating of facts seemed to me totally at odds with the ethereal poetry of the pictures, but in fact it only heightens their emotional impact. That these places and sights – which in this sequence create the impression of a vivid and strange dreamworld – all existed at a specific moment and at a precise location, emphasises both the fleeting physicality of the world and the ultimate remoteness of human internal experience from it.

Running through the book is that feeling, familiar from dreams, of something missing… not something you can name, but a slight hole in your experience, an absence of some small but important part of the situation, that you’re sure you could recall if only you could get over there, or round that corner, or to the end of this task. The people in the book, all four of them (three ‘real’ people and a picture of a boy on a wall) stare absently into space, or into their own internal worlds, which might be described by the shadowy landscapes around them.

The structure hints at dreams too, opening with two images of sea and mountains swathed in mist before moving into the the main middle section of dark, mysterious nighttime landscapes, portraits and glimpses of vaguely defined objects. In many of the photographs, the subjects are just on the edge of disappearing… the back of a white cat disappears into shadow and the ghostly legs of a woman stand and are gone. The crescendo arrives with a picture of an illuminated city (‘JP.Tokyo.02.03.04’) stretching away into the night, a huge skyscraper in the foreground with what looks like a party of people, just visible, in a window on a high floor – the labyrinth of human creation with all its (fake?) promise of comfort and warmth. And then on the next page comes the silence after the roar, an immense rocky landscape (‘IS.Myvatn.10.03.05’), palpably still, with the lights of what could just be a tiny human settlement way off in the distance. But that’s where the dream ends and we’re ejected suddenly back into the light of day and a dim room, curtain billowing in the wind.

I keep looking at it over and over again. A simply beautiful book.

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The Secret of Photography

“The secret of photography is that the camera takes on the character and the personality of its handler” – Walker Evans

From this interesting (if you’re interested in Walker Evans) revisionist essay.

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The Question of Discarded Sofa Cushions

So I’ve very much had my business head on these first couple of weeks of the year, but I’ve been struck the last few days by a couple of fantastic bodies of work that have reminded me why I love photography in the first place.

The first was Andrew Seas, who seems not to have a website, unless I’m missing something, but does have a Flickr stream. I came across his stuff the other day on the often interesting Urbanautica, and was struck by a certain magic something some of his images have, in contrast to a lot of this kind of stuff (I’d call it ‘urban wanderer’) you see around.

I guess there is just so much of this type of work around nowadays – pictures of odd bits of discarded stuff in back alleys, a shaft of light falling on a wall etc, the side of a factory with a steaming vent – that I feel a bit oversaturated with it. I think the beauty of it, for me, was always that at its best it takes the mundane or ordinary and shows you beauty, impermanence, something profound.  But when I’ve seen the 50th picture of an old sofa cushion on a cracked slab of concrete, and only one or two have really struck me, I have to reflect ‘are sofa cushions in themselves beautiful and profound, or is there something in the way that guy did it that spoke to me?’

Maybe on an absolute cosmic level the existence of sofa cushions is indeed beautiful and profound, but on a photographic level I have to think, there is just so much stuff out there that it’s hard to get excited by something unless it has… something… something that you can’t describe maybe, that I can only think comes out of a person’s inner experience of the world, and the way that makes them point the camera.

I went to an Eggleston exhibition last year and was struck by how his compositions often have absolutely nothing ‘right’ with them – they are wonky, fragmented, strange, sometimes have really awful flash lighting – and yet somehow, they are really fascinating pictures. I thought to myself at the time that that is probably the mark of a real genius in any medium – someone who ignores all the established rules and conventions and yet produces something brilliant and direct.

And I guess it probably came from Eggleston in part at least, that photographers love of immortalising the things mainstream society deems ‘unimportant’ or ‘ugly’… at least in that form, at once mystical and matter-of-fact (and vividly colourful).

Anyway, back to Andrew Seas… when I look at some of his pictures, I have something of the same experience – I’m not entirely sure why I like them and they hold my attention, but they do – they have that Z-factor (I can’t use the phrase X-factor any more without seriously negative associations being triggered in my brain). Here’s four that really struck me:

Really beautiful to me… which I guess is the other part of that discussion… how much of what is striking or affecting to us is completely subjective – what’s to say someone else doesn’t find some of those other pictures of discarded cushions really beautiful.

Anyway, in these I particularly love the fleeting, but very different, nature of these moments – the gorgeous transient intangibility of the ring of steam/smoke against the solidity of the buildings, that unreal flash of red inside the bark, the way the picture of the girl in the alley is a moment, but also a totally perfect interrelationship of abstract elements – the circle, the zig-zag, the flash of blue. At the end of the day though I can’t really describe it fully in words. He has a few interesting things to say in that interview, particularly the bit about the ‘feedback loop’. Worth a look, as is his Flickr page.

I’m screen-fried now, so will write about the other thing that’s inspired me recently in a day or two.

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Conveying time with stillness

My favourite discovery of the last few days has been Thomas Locke Hobbs ‘Pulmones’ (Lungs) project, which I found through this post. The interview is worth reading, he has some good and thoughtful things to say about his photographic process. What I really liked though is the diptychs. I did a project in triptych’s earlier this year, with which I tried to use juxtaposition to create thought-provoking or humorous combinations. These are quite different though – a very subtle effect created by two images taken from exactly the same point 15 minutes apart as the sun sets, so that the main differences are the lights coming on in people’s houses and apartments.

They made me really appreciate the beauty of still photography again, partly because they are beautiful shots anyway, and I find the labyrinthine nature of the city as he shows it quite thrilling, but also because of the ‘spot the difference’ effect of the two images – I found myself looking back and forth between the two, and it’s in that way of looking that you become aware a) of the endless fascinating detail of the urban landscape and b) of the passing of time – something that still photography doesn’t normally directly convey. In a way these are the most rudimentary form of stop-motion – a two frame time-lapse. And yet somehow this format seems in a certain way more beautiful to me than any of those incredible whiz-bang video pieces you see. Those things always seem to me somehow more technologically and logistically impressive than actually beautiful – but maybe I’m biased as a (predominantly) still photographer who likes to study an image for whole minutes at a time.

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Civilisation and Chaos

The most wonderful quote I came across today, probably well-known to many but not, until now, to me:

“Our civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos” – Werner Herzog

I tend to see the world very much in this way, which can cause one to swing precariously close to nihilism on occasion I think, but also can help one appreciate what we have, because of the very fragility of it… civility, social obligations, mod-cons etc. Another thing that makes one appreciate those things – reading or watching The Road. But only if you’re feeling fairly robust.

I love this this area photographically too – exploring those places where civilisation and wildness meet, where humanity is structuring and ordering the world and where nature is taking back… it made me pull Sze Tsung Leong‘s excellent History Images book off the shelf… extraordinary images of the mindblowing and relentless urbanisation in China in the last decade or so – incredible regularity and order to the new structures, but often shown in relief against the huge destruction and chaos necessary to clear what was there before:


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