Physicality and art


A good day’s walk makes you feel like your heart has overflowed, that it cannot be contained by the physical confines of the body. It spills out into the trees and hills, it is carried in the wind, winds its way through the air-blown grass like a serpent, runs at your heels like a happy dog. Joy is impossible to describe, for what lifts me may not have any kind of effect on you. But when I walk I feel a part of the world and not apart from it. This sense mixes with everything, I mix with it and, quite literally, en-joy.

Walking, when done in the right spirit, is creative, or at least fills me with the same ineffable sense that something essential, something visceral is happening. It is a feeling that anyone who has created something satisfying will recognise. Moving across the world slowly – from a distance little appears to change, just as an artist’s pencil second by second alters the paper insignificantly – it feels like the landscape and the walker have at the day’s end become a manifestation of more than the sum of themselves.

Travelling on foot gives so much time for mental release thanks to its basic slowness. It creates a psychic momentum which carries one’s thoughts and emotions onward long after the stepping out is finished. It gives a mental space, an openness, which is ripe for fledging ideas and firming up reflections. There is so much in its inherent, rhythmical slowness which is essential to the emotive understanding of all kinds of issues, problems and inspirations. Much of this is also down to the being there, wind on face, earth under foot, straining, feeling muscle and sinew as they negotiate a passage through the elements. The physical engagement transforms everything, makes our sometimes leaden lives golden once more – the philosopher’s stone for those of us who by necessity live our modern lives once removed from the elemental.

Working creatively, too, exercises the same attraction and endows what we do with identity and dynamism. In the hours of engagement with the work we make, our thoughts and actions have mixed so thoroughly with the physical elements of our day, whether they be rocks and air or paper and chemicals, that the result is not just something we have done or produced, it is part of us; full of heart, mistakes, retracing of steps, thrilling views and realisations, emotions, disappointments, challenges, and, with effort and luck, completeness and consummation.

Perhaps, this is why purely electronic media, whilst brilliant, can feel unsatisfying. They lack physicality. Unless their images are printed out, there is no molecular reality to the medium, no tangibility to the product. Like the sibilance of music on CD compared to the tonal richness of live music, it is impossible not to be aware that this is not ‘real’ but is manufactured from ones and zeros. I am strongly pro-digital (in music and in art) because it makes getting 99% of the desired result so wonderfully quick and possible. However, that final one percentage point is increasingly significant to me. In fact it is huge, impossible to ignore and explains why I am willing to spend days and months learning and labouring to get a version of an image which is right not just in its appearance but also in its execution.

The viewer does not care of course. This is the prerogative solely of the creator for only he or she handles the film holder, or winds the crank, and then at a later time with a head full of emotions and remembrances, sees the beauty of the negative held for the first time against the light of a window, later to convert that upside-down and back-to-front transparency into something physical for the world to see. When I have made a print, whether analogue or digital, I like to touch it, smell it, hold it aslant to the daylight to see its texture and appreciate the way that it seems alive as the light deepens the blacks, raises the whites to brilliance. I often take a print and sit with it in my hands, eyes closed, to appreciate its weight and texture in my hands. Without this sensuous appreciation I feel a gnawing sense of lack in what I make and do. Perhaps this love of the physical is misguided nostalgia but I feel rather that it is an acknowledgement of the real, the legitimate and the durable. The pursuit of these three qualities is what I think draws us into galleries when we can more easily view art online.

I for one want to be there as part of the experience not separated from it by signals up and down a phone line or round and round a whirring hard drive. In the just the same way, I want the walk up the mountain with its rain and wind, its sun and stars and not the simply the partial view of some vicarious armchair journey on my screen. The reality and the beauty we desire is not in the ‘elsewhere’ of which we dream. When we get out and place ourselves bodily amongst the sometimes uninspiring stuff of the everyday, it reveals itself everywhere and we can’t help but meet it at every turn. If we are wise enough to take the physicality of the world on its own terms, to watch it, smell it, touch it, describe it in the way that it feels most real – whether that is by walking it, photographing it, sketching it, sculpting it – this physical life and art become fused, indistinguishable and intoxicating.

Four days in the hills – unity and beauty, life and death

I am not a great believer in destiny. Synchronicity, however, I view quite differently. I set off for the Lakes with an ambitious route plan, a number of photographic ideas to explore and a rather conquering vision of what the journey would accomplish for me. Within minutes of boarding the train the careful plans started to unravel in a series of apparently unconnected events which left me with a dramatically different notion of how I would spend my time in the mountains.

There is no music but silence
There is no music but silence

The first unsettling event was the death of a young man on the railway line outside Wigan which held up the train. I know not if it was suicide but as the train rumbled past a line of emergency vehicles I could not prevent myself from reflecting on how desperately out-of-kilter and unhappy someone must be to end their life in such a grim way and, while attempting to imagine how it might feel to see the world through a fog of despair on a grey June morning like this, I started to reassess what I would be attempting on my walk. Why try to do so much? Why not instead savour the freedom of being able to roam at will with no ties and no cares? Why not just enjoy being there, being alive? And so, rather than racing off in the direction of the summit of High Street, I chose to walk the gentler route towards the Langdale Pikes.

Once on the trail, with the sun unexpectedly beating down, a second realisation made it clear that, not having walked much since last year due to periodic bouts of chronic fatigue, things were going to be far more arduous than I had envisaged. What delusion made me think I could walk twelve or fifteen miles a day with a pack in the mountains! Psychologically and physically diminished, I modified the plan and picked a spot on the map for which to aim, somewhere close enough to reach but far enough away to allow me to be close to the peaks. I did not think of using my camera; the avoidance of pain and discomfort in legs, knees and shoulders was far more pressing. Not to mention the next, rather more urgent problem: finding water.

I am used to the luxury of abundant, clean streams in mountainous areas and had taken for granted that Langdale would be as I remembered it – wet and luxuriant with plenty of drinking water at regular intervals. This lack of water in the driest Lakeland landscape I have ever seen soon made its importance felt. Mid-evening had arrived before I stumbled joyously across a secluded, flat spot near a beautiful heart-shaped mountain pool. I pitched the tent, cooked, drank copiously and fell rapidly into a sleep of total exhaustion. Wondering about photography I drifted off. Perhaps I wouldn’t make any exposures at all, survival and thoughts of life and death seemed far more important after all.

As I woke 12 hours later, I knew straight away that I had to reassess my plan once more with shoulder and leg pains and a feeling of some exhaustion still. I was going to have to stay in this one place, no chance of roving with a full pack. But how beautiful it was to know that I had a whole tarn of drinking water to myself. A warm rush of security from this knowledge swept through me. A beautiful, small thought – one normally swamped by a life of speed and gadgetry – how precious water is and how exhilarating the certainty of survival which its presence brings. I noticed, too, that with this assurance the prospects for photography seemed to shine a little brighter.

Dawn over Fairfield
Dawn over Fairfield

There is a special quality to time spent in wild places in total solitude. I prefer to go without too rigid a plan of which route to follow or how to spend my time. I am happy to spend a minute, an hour or a day in one place and too much fixation on schedules kills the joy of being able to idle or roam at will. The prospect of taking the days slowly was becoming delicious and coming to terms with the idea of being much more static than I had initially intended to be, enforced stillness was being to grow in attractiveness. The coincidence of occurrences that brought me to this state of acceptance became apparent. Dawn. A metaphorical one today but a change of attitude that was to see me up and thrilled to be alive for the actual dawn on the next two days. As inside, so outside: the impulse to create was pulling now, and how fascinating that a number of unwanted circumstances had brought me to such a place of inner peace and external beauty.

Four days in the hills

I have enjoyed so many inspirations and experiences, some bordering on the life-changing, in just a few days in the wilderness that I find myself, several days after my return, still in a whirl of thoughts and emotions, trying to formulate them in my mind (difficult) and write them down in intelligible form (much harder). Just one thing is clear: I went to the hills to make images but came back with much more than photographs.

I have undertaken many journeys on foot over the years, some just a few yards in length, a couple extending to hundreds of miles. I have always returned with photographs of the trip, some good, some bad, but nearly all with a separateness about them. By which I mean that the photographs and the journey existed as distinct entities: there was the journey and there were also, just afterwards, the images – distinct, discrete and separate from one another.

The walk of some fifteen miles I undertook recently over the four days of Jubilee weekend has quite a different character – and I use the present tense because it feels that although I am now stationary in a physical sense I still have a strong, unquenchable sense of motion, exhilaration and connectedness as if the momentum has yet to diminish. The walking; the photography; the co-existing with falcons, finches, deer, clouds, frost, water, sun; the survival in inhospitable circumstances; the overcoming of physical pain (knees, shoulders, feet); the discoveries; all seem so inseparable, so integrally, tightly bound that I cannot write solely about the making of imagery. All are chapters of the same story, facets of the same diamond, clouds in the same sky, bogbeans in the same glassy, heart-shaped pool.

Bogbean - purity of form
Bogbean - purity of form

Over the next few posts, I hope I can crystallize and condense all this wordless sensation into something clear – much as the rising thermals eventually lift the morning cloud from the mountain peaks – about how the journey’s elements enmeshed: the landscape, my movement within it, the photographs I made, the shutter openings I rejected in favour of just looking, the encounters with wild animals and places, the predicaments and joys I experienced, the thoughts and emotions I discovered.

Totemic images

Icy Pool

Crown Graphic, Xenar 135mm, Polaroid 55 4×5

Rock in ice, River Monnow

Crown Graphic, Symmar 210mm, Polaroid 55 4×5

I felt so drawn to this frozen eddy of the River Monnow at the turn of the year. I kept returning, looking and watching and finally made two exposures from my last remaining box of Polaroid 55. Several days later in the darkroom, the initial pull and excitement of the scene simply evaporated and I wondered over and over why I had found the place, the atmosphere and the composition so stimulating. This post-exposure disappointment, this disorientation, is very familiar to me. I have endless boxes of negatives which languish unprinted, or maybe printed once or twice. Few of the negatives are badly exposed, all are close to the what I visualised at the time of exposure. Why then, I have always puzzled, should there be such a gap between the excitement of the moment of creation (the discovery) – and the emotion and momentum which moves one to propel raw material into a finished work (the revelation)?

The experience of the few days spent on the Welsh border and the following periods of uncertainty and frustration in the darkroom, which at the time left me non-plussed, have today, quite unexpectedly, blossomed into understanding and rediscovery of that time. I have reviewed both prints several times during the last months and felt in equal measure excited and confused by them. Each time I thought how strange it was not to understand my own work. Perhaps by virtue of having looked and looked, I suddenly twigged: the excitement was from knowing, though dumbly at the time, that here was a scene totemic of life at that moment; the disappointment came from not being able to give voice to this knowing.

These two images suddenly snapped into focus for me when I understood the eerie correspondences between the last eighteen months of shifting, emotionally cracked and blurred experience and the fundamental uncertainty of the key elements of the photographs: an eddy in a river, frozen but thawing; a rock apparently floating on water; underwater cracks more tree-like than the trees reflected on the surface; a confusion of focus; a tangle of shapes which now seems to follow a definite composition, now appears just tangled without understandable form. In a moment, I undertook the imaginative leap from seeing the images as a mediocre confusion of tones and lines to regarding them as a striking totem of life. Whether they are reflective of what had passed or predictive of what was to come is impossible to say. What is indisputable, and thrilling, is the illumination they have given me and the sense of understanding I feel now that they are no longer shrouded in confusion. Life seems to be changing for the better.

Teasel – Polaroid 55

Sometimes it is enjoyable to take a lensed camera out as a contrast to the slowness of pinhole photography. I found this print on a shelf in my darkroom four years after exposing it and only then realised its aesthetic qualities, qualities hidden to me at the time. Although the exposure time may have been quicker, the production time certainly was not.

Spring sunshine by the River Stour, Warwickshire (Polaroid 55 print, 150mm lens on Shen Hao 4×5).

Offa’s Dyke II

I feel slightly sheepish that I have had a few comments about my “pinholes” of Offa’s Dyke. I should perhaps make it plain that the photos I am posting here are lensed photos taken nearly twenty years ago. I am posting them as a thought-provoker for myself for a possible revisit with a pinhole camera. The more I consider it, the more the prospect seems attractive and fascinating.

Church Llanfihangel

Path at Llantilio Crosseny

White Castle

Offa’s Dyke – revisiting a notebook

I am fascinated by the physical and mental processes of long journeys on foot.

Physically, complete mobile self-sufficiency changes one’s view of what is essential in life when everything has to be carried. Lightweight cutlery, for example, assumes an unusual beauty for its marriage of function and efficient design. As does the strength and flexibility of a simple boot lace which inevitably catches one’s glance hour after hour.

Mentally, the solitude and the unrelentingness of a two-week walk can be daunting and at times dull. By paying attention to each new scene, sound, smell, vision – and here photography enhances the experience immensely – the enforced meditation of the second-by-second stepping literally changes one’s mind; makes one less a visitor and more a co-exister with all things on the path, around it and above it.

As at the moment I endure an enforced break from making new prints and negatives, I have been drawn back to this journey I made in 1991 when I walked Offa’s Dyke on the border of England and Wales, from South to North. Along the way I photographed whatever appeared to sum up the experience of the moment, later compiling the images in a notebook. I chose not to write anything in the book except the name of the location and the distance travelled from the start of the route.

Foot journeys never seem to leave one’s consciousness. Perhaps the drum-beat regularity of the rhythm they demand etches itself on the mind in ways which the inherent rapid variety of other ways of travelling cannot. This, combined with revisiting my photographic notebook made at the time, is making me consider a 20-year anniversary re-walking of the route with a light cardboard pinhole camera and a couple of films. I have an intuition that it will be a satisfying and illuminating thing to undertake.

Here are the first three photographs taken in the extreme South of the path.

Chepstow One Mile

Above Tintern

Leaving Monmouth

Full Moon, New Year 2010

New Year Moon

During a hiatus whilst I get to grips with photogravure, the New Year has been an opportunity to refresh, take stock and experiment with some digital imagery. This is my totem image for 2010, a beautiful moon full of hopes and desires for the coming months, gracing a sky studded with diamonds.

Paper negative – the underestimated medium

I have had a number of requests recently to explain the use of paper negatives in pinhole photography. What I describe here is of course not restricted to use in pinhole cameras but can be applied to any camera which can be modified to accept a non-standard negative. I have used paper negatives with extremely good results in a standard 4×5 camera as well as a range of pinhole devices. Using paper rather than film seems to be shrouded in notions of difficulty and unpredictability when in fact it is very easy to use and, if cost is an issue, extremely cheap. Apart from the need for some kind of makeshift or permanent darkroom, the principle obstacle encountered is the excessive contrast of photographic paper but this is in fact quite simple to control and produce images with a smooth tonal range.

First of all, be aware that photographic paper is more sensitive to the blue wavelengths of light so any subject reflecting or emitting blue light (e.g. blue skies) will over-expose more easily than might be expected with panchromatic film.

The second thing required to control contrast (assuming that is what you aim to accomplish) is pre-flashing of the paper negative under the enlarger prior to loading it into the camera or film holder. Pre-flashing is quite simple but it does need a bit of experimentation. Basically what you need to achieve is to add some exposure to your paper but not enough to alter the pure base white.

Practically speaking, in order to pre-flash, set up your enlarger with no negative in the carrier and a sheet of unexposed paper on the baseboard. I have have found an exposure 2 seconds at f16 with the enlarger head set at approx 65cm from the base board works for me, although your setup will be different, no doubt. Next make a test print with intervals of, say, 2 seconds between one and the next. It might be worth stopping down a bit more than I do to give a bit more latitude for different exposures. Develop fully, wash and dry, then in good light find the exposure BEFORE the exposure which gives you the lightest of light grey (Zone IX in zone system parlance). For example, in the picture below, 2 seconds would be the optimum exposure, one second being too little and 3 seconds too much.

You might have to do this a few times to find exactly the exposure needed. Once you have found it though you can pre-flash a number of sheets and keep them for use like film. Make a note of the settings and just run a quick confirmation test when you make your next batch of pre-flashed sheets. I use a grade 1 filter whilst preflashing on Ilford Multigrade and end up with a negative medium with a sensitivity of around ISO 6. In my experience there is always a slight change from one session to the next but the basic exposure you establish will be a pretty sound starting point. After this no other contrast control should be necessary beyond a sympathetic assessment of the colour temperature of the light at the time of exposure. Experience will be a good guide here.

At the point of development a very dilute or partially exhausted developer will help you to control the contrast by allowing you the time to pull the negative out of the bath before it goes too dark or contrasty. Again, experience here will help you get things right. I prefer to alternate the negative between a weak developer bath and a water wash and allow between 2 and 10 minutes of development according to the density of what appears. It is a fairly imprecise process from start to finish so you will have to play things by ear! I wouldn’t worry if the negative looks flat (either under the safelight or after washing). I find that even very weak or flat negatives can scan very well. The hardest to work with are overly contrasty or over-exposed negatives. If you intend to make contact prints I think you will find things harder to get right but scanning and digital printing will give plenty of leeway for adjustments.

There is some discussion amongst aficionados regarding the finish of the paper employed as a negative, glossy or matt. If using a curved film plane (e.g. a biscuit tin) you may find that the shiny surface of glossy paper reflects back on itself causing unwanted lighting blemishes. If you wish to avoid this it may be preferable to use matt or satin-finish paper although glossy paper will produce a sharper final image as its surface has little or no texture to blur the contact between the negative image and the platen of the scanner or the surface of the contact printing paper. Personally I always use Ilford Multigrade satin paper as I find its slightly uneven texture adds a certain unpredictability to the result which for me is part of the excitement and charm of pinhole photography.

As a final plug for the benefits of paper, in these post-polaroid days if you need a quick confirmation of exposure or composition and happen to be working near a darkroom, it is possible in just a few moments to see the result obtained. And there is always the thrill of seeing a print come to life under the red safelight, a thrill which never seems to diminish no matter how many prints pass through the developing tray.