leo photophile

Through a glass darkly


I believed at first that Gaston Bachelard was a postman, in the same way as Kafka was a clerk. I thought of him riding round the French countryside on his bicycle in a dark tunic with red flashes. Now when I think of him, the wind rattles the slates, mice run in the rafters and the timbers crack in the grip of the ice, and, by that very consequence, I am snug within. “Great passions,” he wrote, “are prepared by great reveries.” I wonder now if my nature is longing – because I have named my picture thus:

 My end is my beginning My end is my beginning (from the helicopter) 

The year was 1976 and later that year my younger daughter was born. When the news of her mother’s pregnancy came over the ship’s radio, I was in the company of roustabouts, roughnecks and Mexican welders, even an Oxford graduate. I was called an aged hippy and likened to Lee Marvin in Cat Balou. I chose to be flattered by that, but still I have not seen the movie! It felt like a liberation from a false self, but did not touch the deeper condition of distance.

 helicopter landing Chopper landing on oil rig, Fortes Field, 1976

There were some lovely guys out there. Many were from Mexico. One young cook’s assistant was always stationed like a gracious host as we filed into the comidor for our meals. He always greeted me with the same question: “Are you angry, Sor?” Of course I always denied it – until eventuallly I realised why he always looked a bit crestfallen by my reply – hungry it was he was saying.

 Mexican welder Welder, North Sea, 1976

Bachelard in his work The Poetics of Reverie (1960) poses the position of arriving at one’s imaginative self in words that make a man the author of his solitude. It sounds to me like the achievement of a lifetime that: to be able to grasp the full intent of that phrase of his; and certainly in 1976, exactly 30 years ago, I was far from any such blessed state, whether now I am any nearer. And, of course, poets die young, don’t they. But anyone who knows the writing of Melanie Klein will know that a position is not a state, and, although dependent on capacity, is always temporary and reached only from time to time. The depth of imagination must be like this, and the camera, therefore, a ritualistic reminder of such wonders.

Anyway –

 Mary love Mary (19), mother of Sophie, 1976 in the woods on the banks of Loch Lomond


August 23, 2006 Posted by | Bachelard, black and white photography, Melanie klein | Leave a comment

A poor player

There is another thing about photography that engages me, if I can find a way to put it. In contrast to Josef Koudelka’s iconic pictures I have always been conscious of what I would call the extraordinary-ordinary coincidence. You get it in old postcards of streets possibly photographed on a Saturday afternoon with omnibuses and folk bussling about so many long summers gone by. It is a bit hypnotic; the image registers a sort of conjuring trick.

I suppose this is about unconsciousness.

A photograph could be said to be essentially once-and-for-all, and its power to convey feeling and affect the viewer depends on the photographer’s readines for the chance eventuality that corresponds with his own aesthetic (a mystery in itself, of course).

The sense I am trying to get at does not always follow. For then, the images of soldiers, gypsies and peasants, for instance, that Josef Koudelka so brilliantly captures, impart to his subjects a kind of emblematic and representative standing. Perhaps the “better” a picture the more this evanescent effect I am in touch with recedes.

Kneeling Josef Koudelka: Irish gypsies

Whereas now, I envisage spotting the subject from the top deck of the 82 bus of an early morning. There he is on the pavement at the end of Piccadillly as the bus rounds into Hyde Park Corner. He wanders uncertainly next to the scaffolding  in full tribal regalia (as it happens), appearing like “a poor player” who happens upon the stage open-mouthed, and then is seen no more. That is his entire character, not a representation that can be made to stand for anything else, but just this unannounced appearance and his straightway vanishing, as the bus hurls into the bend on its way to Victoria, this lostness – almost, it could be claimed, not all there at all.  Because it is about the wonder of a glimpse into a hidden existence which draws along with it its inscutible origins and its eventual fate – people on the way somewhere, mindless and preoccupied, and – noticed, just before sinking into the unattainable.

How do you get a photograph to convey such a thing? Well, I felt the buzz again when I looked at this picture of Stieglitz’ recently:

Snapshot Paris Snapshot, Paris, 1911

August 11, 2006 Posted by | black and white photography | Leave a comment

I talked of Josef

I talked of Jacob too – the patriarch.

But Josef first: French, b. (Czech) 1938 Born in a tiny village of Moravia, Koudelka began photographing his family and surroundings as a teenager with a 6 x 6 Bakelite camera. 

Chagrin that he would be younger than me but has achieved so much more.  

 Child  Child by Josef Koudelka  

But there’s another guy – Roy DeCarava

Stove Stove by Roy DeCarava

 And finally, a couple of mine  

 Lighting up Reading Room

(This shot is from the late 1960s. I saw this old chap lighting his pipe under the high windows in Clydebank public library. Catch him doing it these days!)

 Winter afternoon in Glasgow Winter afternoon in Glasgow

Now that I remember, there are two photographs by Izis (Israel Bidermanas) that I have not seen for years, but which “vibrate in the memory” and “live within the sense they quicken”. One is of a snow scene in Paris taken from above with criss-cross paths in the snow. The other is like a vision – of a French chateau. I have tried to find them, but never come across them again. 

August 7, 2006 Posted by | Bidermanas, black and white photography, Izis, Koudelka | 1 Comment


Lyones, according to Mallory’s Morte Darthur, is the sister of Lynet, and the woman who K loves. K, who has served his time in the court kitchen, is knighted by Lancelot and given the honourable name of Sir Gareth by virtue of his having proved himself “passing perilous” in jousting with his lord, who now reckons his liege a worthy warrior and well able to protect Lynet. The Lady Lynet, however, despises K, and persists in considering him to be a mere kitchen page. She is, thus, the damsel who cannot be pleased. When K (Gareth) by now in Lynet’s service, sets eyes on her sister Lyones, as she looks from her castle, he immediately falls in love with her. But, though he presses his suit, Lyones insists he wander for another year, desiring him not to be hasty, even though she loves him and promises never to betray him. Mallory suggests there are connections between Lyones and the sorceress Morgaine le Fay, and indeed her magic powers protect Gareth from a series of nocturnal attacks by a perfidious stranger bearing a battle axe. In the account of these woundings there are parallels with the story of Jacob at the ford of Jabbok in the book of Genesis, a passage I want to talk about sometime here.

Homage to GinaHomage to Gina

August 7, 2006 Posted by | black and white photography, Jabbok | Leave a comment