Sunday 30 September 2007

Onto film

Some weeks after the last August visit (and a couple of weeks ago now) we are back there again.

I liked the photo of Cal in the grasses, but wished I had it also on film to print myself in black and white.

I have only the RZ with me this time, and plenty of film.

I ask him if we can have another go, with him in the grasses....he gives me precisely two seconds.

Funnily enough, I think it comes out with a more natural feel than the first, even though in a sense it was more 'set up' (or re-created). This time the red hot pokers are over, and the white flowers are out, (dahlias? or maybe they are really yellow - I forget!) more suitable to black-and-white, which is pure fortune. I think I prefer it. Perhaps it was saved from seeming stilted because the whole thing was over in a blink of an eye, and I had to work very fast...

Boy in the Grasses ⓒ Cate McRae 2007; All Rights Reserved

Dog-days of summer: Cal in the grasses

Another from the same afternoon. Neither 'set up' or re-created this time!

Dog-days of Summer Copyrightⓒ Cate McRae 2007; All Rights Reserved

Dog-days of summer: Cal with horse chestnut

All Images ⓒ All Rights Reserved

Thursday 6 September 2007

Sketch book : postscript.

It has been positive sorting these digital pictures, there is an immediacy I cannot deny – taking the photographs, beginning to sort and edit some yesterday of the house and garden on the screen has set my mind spinning with ideas, reminded me how important the place is to me still, how much more there is to do.

I have many sleeves of negatives to look through, much to sort from the past, and many thoughts for the future.

Best of all, I still have several rolls of film to process from the last trip. As always when several weeks (or even, occasionally, months) have gone by & I’ve left the rolls waiting, and have half-forgotten what I’ve taken, I’m looking forward with eager anticipation to see what will be there…

The holidays are over, and my mind is spinning with projects – the strands that weave a continuing pattern of this place is only one of those projects – but I know it is one I will return to again and again.

Wednesday 5 September 2007

The apple trees are old...

(continuing the "sketch book"...)

Reach ⓒ Cate McRae 2007; All Rights Reserved

And there are hardly any apples on the Bramley any more. The eaters are Worcester Pearmains. Why is it that the best are out of reach?
Though...I could surely reach forward and take... that one...

Birch Woman ⓒ Cate McRae 2007; All Rights Reserved

The silver birch is thought to be at least as old as the house itself, which dates back to the 'thirties. Looking up, it seems like the back of a woman, with neck bent forward and arms stretched to the sky.

Boundary ⓒ Cate McRae 2007; All Rights Reserved

This is the boundary of the garden, I am outside, looking back.

Look Back ⓒ Cate McRae 2007; All Rights Reserved

Not more than twenty paces, and I look back again. The house and garden are completely obscured.

All Images ⓒ All Rights Reserved

Sunday 2 September 2007

A splash of colour

Time for some pictures. These are from my trip described in my last post. And warning for traditional lovers (and of course I am one) these are not taken on film. I have all the photographs transferred safely to my computer of course, backed up on another hard drive - but no time yet to process them. I'm beginning to feel that keeping up with the workflow can be just as hard with digital...These are some sketches.

Boy and Red Hot Pokers ⓒ Cate McRae 2007; All Rights Reserved

Cal in the grasses. He was hiding. All I spied was his face, his hair at this time of year bleached from red to gold, the exact colour of the summer grasses.

Found ⓒ Cate McRae 2007; All Rights Reserved

At last some time to myself, to wander around the garden while others are occupied on a sleepy afternoon, in the house. I lifted some low branches to the side of the small shed, and found the umbrella, hanging like some exotic flower, strange and surprising, but almost as if it had always been there...Was it left more recently, by a visitor, one of my brothers, a young nephew, or left there years ago, even by my father perhaps, and never noticed? Long enough for some creature to make it's nest inside it...

More to follow.....

All Images ⓒ All Rights Reserved

Saturday 11 August 2007

A few days away

We’ve just had a few days away at my mother’s house. Nearly a week. Refreshing, as always, visiting this place I have known for the largest part of my life. Not only getting away from the city, but so much more…hard to put into words.

Every time I go I pack my camera gear – sometimes more, sometimes less. Sometimes I take everything, because I never know what I’m going to feel like using. Sometimes I take no pictures at all.

I started documenting the house and garden in a more or less strategic way - or rather with no strategy beyond the fact that I knew for certain it was something I had to do - five years ago, soon after the death of my father. In that first year the pictures I took were raw and possibly rough in a black-and-white kind of way. I realise, this time, how the pictures are changing, becoming less about my father and his place there (and possibly my relationship to him) and more about the place itself. The pictures I think are softer, and I am taking many in colour as well as always black-and-white; the place, after all, is full of vibrant colour at this time of year - and above all, soft greens and grassy fawns in a natural, slightly overgrown kind of way. On the edge of being out of control - physically itself at the boundary of a controlled kind of wilderness - but just maintained, and in balance…less edgy than the first pictures when the future was uncertain, everything was let loose, and there was no equilibrium to be found, in a place that had always been predictable, and sure.

Monday 9 July 2007

Black Dogs : connections between story-telling and photography

From Ian McEwan’s Black Dogs.
The story-teller, 'Jeremy', is questioning the way his mother-in-law views an event in her life, involving an encounter with two black dogs, which she claims changed her life:

Turning-points are the inventions of story-tellers and dramatists, a necessary mechanism when a life is reduced to, traduced by, a plot, when a morality must be distilled from a sequence of actions, when an audience must be sent home with something unforgettable to mark a character’s growth. Seeing the light, the moment of truth, the turning point, surely we borrow these from Hollywood or the Bible to make retroactive sense of an overcrowded memory?

Perhaps using memory, and thinking or writing about the past, we do force some kind of turning point in the way McEwan's character suggests – when the truth is events usually unfold more randomly, even erratically, and life can't be easily pinpointed in that way. And yet I think it can, though it’s often only in retrospect that we realise the significance and symbolic nature of a particular event, or moment.

The writer creates those ‘moments’ but maybe it is not as manipulative as the above passage might imply. Or, it is, but with good reason (and it isn't a negative thing). Any writer forces the reader along the path they wish the reader to follow, even if that involves giving ‘choices’ and denying conventional structures.

Almost immediately (more obviously so with digital) a photograph has capacity to become a part of a ‘looking back’ and takes context from what has preceded and what is to follow, in a way (normally) that totally out of proportion to the actual significance of that moment as it would have appeared with no camera there to record it.

So almost instanteneously it becomes ‘memory’ and a photograph becomes a ‘defining moment’ in the way the turning points of our lives become, often in retrospect, defining moments – they seem to distil the ‘truths’ of the time they were taken. Very like memory, and possibly as liable to distortion, and with a tremendous power (like the subjective recollection of events) actually to form and become memory itself….

Some pictures especially connected with members of my own family and particularly my children, now seem pivotal to me, in a personal sense in their lives and therefore mine too of course – and in the quietest sense possible – moments occurring with the quietest steps – (and the significance only realised after the event).

This passage, from Black Dogs again – for some reason made me think of some of the photographs I have taken of my mother, with my perspective being uncannily close to the narrator’s. Not the exact 'image' described, but the feeling and the relationship. And apart from that, or anything else, I just love the details of it – the image of the woman herself, her cardigan, her teaspoon and her bulbs, her quiet determination. Very visual, very simple. I guess this is the kind of writing I like best.

'Jeremy' is making tea for his mother-in-law, in her room, in the residential home she lives in….

Outside the rain had stopped but the wind still blew, and a tiny woman in a pale blue cardigan was making her way across the lawn with the aid of a walking frame. A strong gust could have carried her away. She arrived at a flower-bed against a wall and knelt down on the grass on her knees, she manoeuvred the frame to one side, and took from one pocket in her cardigan a tea spoon, and from the other a handful of bulbs. She set about digging holes and pressing the bulbs into them. A few years ago I would have seen no point at all in planting at her age, I would have watched the scene and read it as an illustration of futility. Now, I could only watch.

Wednesday 27 June 2007

Springing from the Ground

I came across this the other day, in a book belonging to a friend:

A few years ago, at Mount Grace Priory in Yorkshire, several tons of earth were moved during restoration work. Old soil which had not been exposed to the air for centuries was uncovered and the seeds of mediaeval plants, hidden in it 400 years ago, began to grow. Wale, a yellow dye herb, sprang up. We read about this and visited the Priory. I expected to see some rather sad and tired-looking plants, which had germinated half-heartedly and crawled out of the earth. Instead, we found masses of tall, vibrant flower-spikes, blooming, glowing golden, bursting with life – perfectly ready to take their part again in the cycle of creation. The power of the seed was not
diminished in any way by being hidden for so long in the dark ground.

[From Ground and Spring: Foundations of Quaker discipline, by Beth Sharp, pub. Quaker Books 2007]

The writer goes on to comment on the poppies that bloomed in Flanders Field in the First World War, for the same reason. The trenches and shellfire both dug up the fallow ground and as the earth was exposed to light, the poppy seeds dormant there enjoyed just the right conditions for their growth and the battlefields became an unexpected garden.

I’m not a Quaker, I don’t follow any religion. But this spiritual message seems to cover the essence of death or destruction, or decay, and renewal. Something many artists, including photographers, seem to be preoccupied with. I know I am, and if not that, a sense of change, of moments that mark a movement from one mood to another, the point at which the pendulum reaches the highest point, and then turns down again.. The story of the mediaeval flowers struck a chord with the new personal project I am working on. Which is to do with the relationship of transience and permanence, I suppose. On a wider level, of course, the idea of the transience of existence is inseparable from the act of photography - if the intention is to capture and distil a moment in time – the ephemeral nature of all things given an illusion of permanence with the image obtained. Then, the print itself, becoming of-itself and something other than that lost moment, achieving a very real kind of presence and ‘permanence’.

That photographs should last is important to me - as a kind of defiance of the passage of time – as well as at times a preoccupation with death, or decay and renewal. I don’t try to analyse it too much, to think why. But there it is. And reading the above passage makes me want to get on with recording those pictures I know are floating in my head and need to be on film, on paper.

Tuesday 26 June 2007

The eternal dilemma

I’ve done it again – spent the last six days clear in the darkroom – on several days for over five hours a day.

I’m feeling crabby, tired, dispirited. Yesterday I was on the verge of deciding I was mad to keep this darkroom going and packing it all up. I feel like a mole coming out into the light, unsure & unwilling about scuttling back in, yet disoriented and disheartened by the daylight world.

Yesterday I had a bad day, too much guesswork (because basically tired and fed-up), taking short cuts, getting my inevitable come-uppance.

So, the dilemma: I am continually ahead of myself, and yet never catching up. It is important to print my best pictures, the best I can, and I need time to do this, and yet it is also important to be producing new work. When I am printing I feel I am not really progressing (which of course, is not true). When I’m taking new pictures I’m always aware of the backlog of negatives to be dealt with. I do the printing in ‘phases’ – try to get as much done as I can – and now I am aware of the approaching school holidays which will eat up my printing time. Then I will keep up with a certain amount of picture-taking but always, always behind myself.

I know the lesson: always limit the time in the darkroom to three days a week at most, around four hours a day at most. Breaks within that time. Slow and easy – the methodical way that is, as it happens, quite natural to me.

Not to run ahead of myself, expect too much of myself, be so unforgiving of errors I bring upon myself, my harshest critic.

Breathe in, breathe out, take a break. No hurry. There’s time enough for everything..…And yet time passes like a whirlwind!

Sunday 24 June 2007

Wind-on levers continued...

I was talking today with a friend (not over-seriously) about wind-on levers – how the act of winding on the film gives you a moment, a space, almost like a pause or ‘gathering together’ in a martial art; a silent, physical centring

But….she said …….what she loves about her camera is the speed of it, how she doesn’t miss the shots…

There’s a truth in this. But I also firmly believe that for every shot that is missed there’s another waiting.

Saturday 16 June 2007

Sand between the toes, or the mantra of preparedness

Sand between the toes. The simple touch and feel of it; connections. Opening the camera back, laying out the roll, or cannister of film, easing it into place, carefully fixing over the sprockets, or winding around the backplate, until secure in place. Turn, close, click, wind, click....ready. The beauty of touch: Now I am ready.

As for the digital - It took me a morning to work out it's functions - I surprised myself at how quickly I took to it. I loved the immediacy of it, the power to see what was there on the screen, to delete, to try again. I grabbed all I could. I even dreamt about it that night. The next day, though, I was surprised that the number of photos I had taken had not exceeded what I would have taken on film. My grim 'internal editor' perhaps, overseeing the extravagance. Quite a lot of fuss really, over - when I calmed down and looked at it - not very much. And then, a feeling of emptiness, an odd feeling of nausea as if after eating too many cream cakes - a sense of having moved away in strange way, from myself.

More than that - in my enthusiasm I was in competition not only with the rational cooler self, my 'internal editor' but with another intelligence. Pitting my wits first against the camera - to master it - and then cajoling it into a kind of partnership, but still finding myself trapped into deferring to it, with it's superior knowledge.

And this without even mentioning the follow-up, the next step - the elements of air and water, the involvement of eye and limb, the broader movement, (dancing in the dark is permitted, not only metaphorically), the journey from light to dark, dark to light...compared with the clinical cheery brightness of the computer screen, with pinched eyes, fingers, neck....A toss-up, a preference...But I know where my own preference lies. Though I wouldn't do either every day, and two hours in the dark should be matched by half an hour's exercise. A rule I never actually break because I never impose it, as I clearly should.

A few days after buying my digital camera I felt like leaving it high and dry, turn my back on it. Only room for one decision-maker here, even if those decisions may be out by a fraction of a step. Never anything that could not be dealt with.