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.