Solid, solid rock
ancient temple wrapped in the fleetness of the wind
serenaded by the hiss and sigh of the grass.
I stood on the flat sand and made my exposure while the incoming waves petered out around me, the tripod legs cutting trails and swirls in the dying surges of water . On the horizon the wind was drawing clouds onto the sea and, as the breeze made me squint, the whole world seemed to open up in a lightness of pure, unfocused white; white sky, white sand and a disorientation which hid the steady sinking of my feet and tripod into the foam.
I recently completed the binding of one of my favourite texts, “Letters to a Young Poet” by Rainer Maria Rilke. Since I read this book last year I have loved the wisdom and beauty of its language and the messages it contains. From first picking it up I knew that I wanted to illustrate it with pinhole photographs. The book was printed on standard 100gsm Conqueror paper in contour finish and using A4 guillotined to A5 short-grain allowed me to print to a page size of A6.
First, the signatures were trimmed and then pierced. As I don’t have a plough I trim the pages as accurately as possible prior to binding to make the edge finish of the pages as smooth as I can manage. The result is usually not completely level but I find the slightly rustic unevenness suits me.
The pierced signatures ready for sewing.
Sewing the signatures.
Once the signatures are sewn the cover boards and spine are pasted in place. I chose to use a hollow back made from kraft paper rather than a rigid spine. The inlaid section is fully covered by the covering material and pressed down after pasting to make an indented area into which I place the cover illustration (see below).
The book starts to take shape now. The next step is to paste in the endpapers. I find this part the most difficult as a mistake can write off the whole book. The trimming of the papers needs to absolutely precise as does the application of the paste so that it does not touch the cover material and edges nor the inner pages of the book.
Once pasted, pressed and dried, the endpapers really finish the book beautifully.
The text pages of the book were laid out using Lyx.
I chose to bind illustrations into the centre of two of the signatures. The images were printed on a heavier grade paper than the text (Bockingford Inkjet Watercolour double-sided 190gsm). This makes the feel of the page flow slightly uneven when leafing through the book but it was a necessary compromise to allow the images to be reproduced as close as possible to photo quality.
The final stage was to paste and press the cover illustration into the inlaid section. Although this method of titling is more fiddly than the simple pasting on of a cover title, I personally like to use it for a couple of reasons: it is more stylish and crafted; and the cover photo is protected from abrasion when rubbing against neighbouring books on the shelf.
I am quite dissatisfied that, having had a relatively hard winter, I didn’t seize the chance to work more on the Still Life in Ice series of pinholes. What I wanted to achieve was a collection of poems and photographs working hand-in-hand but somehow the poems didn’t come and as a result I didn’t put much in to constructing the images. Nevertheless, I did come up with one pairing which worked. As usual it has taken me some time to refine the poem and achieve the consistency and balance I sought between the haiku and the photograph. The photo didn’t work on its own (this is what I wanted to begin with); the first draft of the haiku was reasonable but, alongside the image, both the words and the photo seemed somehow diminished and disjointed. The technique of putting everything away for a few weeks allowed me to review it with fresh eyes and suddenly a small tweak to the words, a minimal crop to the image and now I have a result which pleases me to the point that I wish I had been a little more persistent while the ice was with us.
Thrilling now, daring loss,
This is why we love
It is a wet, cold November Sunday here in the UK. The type of day where one needs lots of motivation to venture out: low light levels, stiff breeze, cold, cold air and so damp! Recently I have been labouring under the oppression of a turbulent year in many aspects of life and photography has frequently seemed pointless and unfulfilling. (Does the world really need more monochrome squiggles and shades on its computer screens and walls?)
So it was today that leaving the front door held little attraction, especially when carrying a cold, heavy tripod and made worse by the prospect of fiddling with film holders and a light meter. Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush” captures that dull, resistant mood so well:
“The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.”
And so it happened that my own darkling thrush…
“At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;”
… proved to be the very equipment I nearly left behind. Force of habit forced me to pause near a stand of silver birch trees whose light bark and wiry twigs always look so gorgeously delicate and distinguished no matter what the season nor how deep the gloom. The pause itself revealed nothing to me. Just trees and grass so wiry it looked like scribbles of an artistic child against the dark of the leaf-mould below. A spark of curiosity arose in me; a small heart-leap at the sight of contrasting textures and lines but one so insignificant as to be easily ignored. It had enough charge, however, to make me place the tripod, open the bag and set up the new (and beautiful) pinhole camera made from spalted hawthorn which I recently received from a friend in exchange for some prints.
This unremarkable action, lasting perhaps two minutes, caused me to look slightly differently to the way I would have viewed the scene without a camera. Gradually, but with increasing speed, the wonder of what was before me came back into life. Now, rather than standing somewhat disconsolately in a cold winter woodland, I felt like a participant in an unfolding drama involving trees, grass, wind and humankind. I loved the bite of the cold and the rustle of the few remaining leaves against the twigs holding them fast. Standing next to the pinhole camera in 38 seconds of enforced meditation and looking, I was the camera; the timeline of the vision it was capturing in my presence was my own timeline, a transformation from bleak uncertainty to glorious appreciation of the matter-of-factness of life. One which would remain, if only on a sheet of film and in the cinema of my own mind. And curiously, I sometimes think that the presence of film might not actually matter to me, the photographer, it simply makes possible the expression of the moment to my audience.
I often entertain myself by drawing parallels between the sensuousness of monochrome prints and the tonality of music, high-key print values equating to treble notes and low-key to the bass, with much of the texture of the piece communicated by the middle values. It struck me forcefully today that the comparison of the two media can be taken several stages further and especially with regard to pinhole photography. Notably that the length of the exposures required in much pinhole work makes the very act of exposure similar to that of the performance of music. The involvement of the photographer in the actual process of light’s altering of the silver crystals seems to endow him or her with the transcendental mindset of the performer. The moment of creation occurs during the live act and the recording becomes available later. And, undeniably, the performance – albeit to an audience of one – is a communication (or even a communion) which takes place entirely outside the intellect, allowing the fusion of opposites, the thrill of discovery, the embracing of the immediate without regard to the past or future.
Hardy’s thrush is a musician in just this way, one who takes his audience on a journey of the spirit:
“That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.”
So, photography, a pointless and unfulfilling pursuit? No more and no less than music I have to say now. The poetry of photography and the inspiration of music run parallel for me and I could no more give up the making of photographs than I could prevent myself thrilling to the notes of Elgar, Metheny or Springsteen. Nor, indeed, those of a thrush.