leo photophile

Through a glass darkly

Into the dark

Oh dark dark dark, wrote Eliot, they all go into the dark? 

Charing Cross Underground Charing Cross Underground, October 2006

It all begins with failing eyesight and the impact of metaphors of fading light – Out out brief candle, life’s but a walking shadow

 walking shadow In Great Suffolk Street SE1, October 2006

And I am old, Father William.

Or hasn’t it always been a kind of love of the dark with me? – low lights, sitting in the dark by the light of one small candle, the darkened theatre, never drawing the curtains to keep out the night, and, in recent years, night sailing when we passed through a dark deserted world of unsleeping sea that I would otherwise never know, yet dream of. 

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger, I believe, defined “authentic” human being as a permanent state of “being-towards death”.

St Martins in the Fields St Martin in the Fields, October 2006

I took this next picture during a south easterly gale in the Cornish village of St Mawes on 8 October 2006. It was at springs and that month the tides were predicted to be exceptionally high; at full flood the sea was breaking over the street and overflowing the harbour. The forceful moon was hidden. The wind had been freshening all day and by nightfall had reached its full force, gusting to force 8 straight at the village.  In the dark and rain-swept harbour it was hard to see to set my old Nikon F. At first I went for sharpness in the distance and then, in the almost imperceptible foreground. I took maybe ten shots and this is the one that satisfied me. 

  Ship and Castle Ship and Castle Hotel, St Mawes, October 2006

Lucem demonstrat umbra – the darkness shows forth the light.

Rilke ends his Elegies thus: 

But if the endless dead woke a symbol in us,/ see they would point perhaps to the catkins/ hanging from bare hazels/ or they would intend the rain, falling on dark soil in spring-time.  Rainer Maria Rilke: Tenth Elegy, Duino Elegies          

But, as far as I know, this is not about death. Bion, the psychoanalyst, has much to say about being without memory and desire, but in a very specialised context, namely in his receptivity to the unconscious psychic events in the analytical couple. Here is the point at issue:

This is the dark spot that must be illuminated by blindness. Memory and desire are illuminations that destroy the value of the analyst’s capacity for observation as a leakage of light into a camera might destroy the value of the film being exposed. W.R.Bion: Attention and Interpretation.

It is that phrase: illuminated by blindness (where blindness is used paradoxically as both that which conceals and that which reveals) that strikes a chord for me as a photographer. Calanit Schachner has a series called Seeing Blind. There are two images of the West Pier, Brighton in there, which have particular appeal for me.

So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing. T.S.Eliot: East Coker 

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October 21, 2006 Posted by | black and white photography, Rilke, St Mawes | Leave a comment

The Search

So something lies in wait. To be discovered. Ah but, the intrigue is not always there. All anyone can do is wait or half-heartedly try to push through. But no, not even then does it happen. All unsuspecting, however, I may catch the scent on the breeze and desire kindles.

 To the garret Staircase to the Herb Garret, St Thomas Street, SE1, September 2006

A year or two back, I had the urge to reread a book I read for the first time over thirty years ago. I recalled nothing about it except for a girl with an exotic name that figured somehow or other; the only impression she left on me was of someone standing in a doorway dressed in something silvery. That’s it. Even her name I couldn’t remember. And leaving through a secondhand copy I found – there it was between those unturned pages still -Sharon (not Rose of Sharon like in The Grapes of Wrath) Kincaid. Sharon Kincaid was the name. It sounded too plain now, not showbiz like then. I remembered the title of the book. Of course, I did.

So I started to read and as early as page 7, this:

This morning, for the first time in years, there occurred to me the possibility of a search.. As I watched, there awoke in me an immense curiosity. I was onto something.

An immense curiosity!

What is the nature of the search? This is page 9.

Really it is very simple, at least for a fellow like me: so simple it is easily overlooked.

This is Binx Bolling.

The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. This morning, for example, I felt as if I had come to myself on a strange island. And what does such a castaway do? Why, he pokes around the neighbourhood and he doesn’t miss a trick.

 Market porter Taking out the rubbish, Borough Market, September 2006

To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.

To think my eyes had passed over these words before without registering, at least not consciously. It must have been the bit before it that set up the bookmark, and which, with the passage of time,  had become planted in my mind as being about Miss Kincaid. Such are the mysterious processes of memory! Here it is:

 Miss Kincaid Standing in a doorway,  1993

This is page 8:

The idea of a search comes to me again as I am riding the Gentilly bus down Elysian Fields… Directly next to me, on the first cross seat, is a vey fine-looking girl. She is a strapping girl but by no means too big, done up head to toe in cellophane, the hood pushed back to show a helmet of glossy black hair… As the bus ascends the overpass, I discover that I am frowning and gazing at a noble young calf clad in gun-metal nylon. Now beyond question she is aware of me: she gives her raincoat a sharp tug and gives me a look of annoyance – or do I imagine this? I must make sure, so I lift my hat and smile at her. But it is no use. I have lost her forever. She flounces out of the bus in a loud rustle of cellophane.

Then it is the idea of the search occurs to me. I become absorbed and for a moment or so forget about the girl.

This is in fact not Sharon Kincaid. She turned up later on.

I felt on to something the moment I stepped into 12th Century priory church of St Bartholomew The Great, and returning with an air of high expectation I found there the shot I wanted.

 A sacred space A sacred space, St Bartholomew The Great, founded 1123, September 2006

September 28, 2006 Posted by | black and white photography, The Moviegoer, Walker Percy | Leave a comment

Arets Bilder

When I was much younger than I am now I came across a book of black and white photographs, I don’t remember where, possibly in a secondhand bookshop or stall, or maybe someone was throwing it out. Anyway, it was a Swedish publication: Ur STF’s bildskord 1955/6 Swedish Pictures of the Year 1955, published by The Swedish Touring Club. The title, which I have by heart, was Årets Bilder (pronounced oreets – with the little circle above the Å). I haven’t seen the book in years.

Coming across this unlikely publication in the fifties was one of those chance occurrences that feels just right. Thematically the photographs would now seem dated – mountain landscapes, healthy walkers in national dress, elderly worshippers – yet they had a quality which fascinated me then and I suspect still would. It was the particular balance of dark and light these photographs possessed that drew me, together with an elusive focus which must have been characteristic of the lenses of the time. It is the type of picture I find myself going after today.

 Three doves Three doves bild, Dubrovnic 1966

 St Anthony's bilder St Anthony-in-Roseland bild, August 2006

  Piano top Piano top bild, 1997

This is a bronze by the late Clifford Benjamin Cundy, 1925 – 1992. Here is his obituary in The Independent, 16 Apr 1992.

Sculptor in bronze, painter in oils. Exhibited at the Royal Academy, London and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, and commercial galleries worldwide. Member of the Sketch Club. Member of the National Society of Painters. Scholarship to Magdalen College, Oxford to study engineering but spent more of his time studying art at the Ruskin School of Drawing, Oxford and did not graduate. Friend of the Scottish sculptor, Sir Eduardo Paolozzi, CBE, RA. He returned to England from Iran with the intention of becoming a monk, perhaps influenced by C.S. Lewis who was a don at Magdalen at the time, but instead met his lifelong muse, Hazel, who was to become his wife, so he gave up his intention. Clifford made all his own tools and equipment and did most of his own casting and finishing at Richmond, Surrey, England where he lived. His ancestor was Andreas Kunde, from Pommern, Prussia, born before 1762, who married Anna Clara Klatten auf dem Kutzenhufken also from Pommern, Prussia. Otto von Bismarck, the ‘iron chancellor’, had an estate in the same place.

My picture is in the remembered spirit of Arets Bilder.

Perhaps there are different influences at work here, however.

Carlisle Lane SE1 Carlisle Lane, SE1, August 2006

September 16, 2006 Posted by | black and white photography | Leave a comment

Wilderness

Wilderness has at least two meanings and both are present in this photograph from my series Men of the Road, taken in Glasgow in the sixties. First there is the wilderness of the slums, within a year or two of their demolition, and secondly, the wilderness that seems to inhabit the man engaged in the serious business of lighting up.

Hud still noo lighting up

Figure and setting could be said to be in accord, but only, I think, in a facile sense. For the old wall and pilasters have a beauty of texture which for me is the seductive potential of the grain of black and white film.

 texture Pilaster base

By contrast, the inner wilderness of the man is likely to be inveterate.

This figure evinces paranoid anxiety, which differs from depressive anxiety in that it is concerned to cast the dead objects into outer darkness; it is a defensive position where objects are perceived as alien and hostile and are cursed with an instant ferocity.

Wary wary

In religious thought, for example in the writing of the Christian mystic Thomas Merton or in Harry Williams’ The True Wilderness, enduring the wilderness is understood as necessary to the refinement of the soul and a stage in the soul’s journey. There is something of this is what the medieval Christian ascetics called The Dark Night of the Soul, though here the witholding of grace was not dependent on the destructive urges of the individual, though this in  itself is a moot point, but rather an initiative of God to test the person’s faith.

Yet is it not close to Klein’s depressive anxiety. Whereas wilderness in the monastic tradition placed its faith in emergence into a permanent state of blessedness, Klein uses the word position and means by it that a person can only visit the experience of reparation and restoration – progression and regression are permanently taking place in the maturing individual (a somewhat different take on the bleak Calvinistic verdict on back-sliding!)

And in Melanie Klein’s thinking on the depressive position contrasts with the embattled paranoid position which holds to alienation as a matter of life and death and may petrify into a state.

 wily and perhaps dangerous wily and ready to strike

But notice the look of anxiety in the other eye, his left.

So what is the true wilderness?

September 3, 2006 Posted by | black and white photography, Harry Williams | Leave a comment

Scenes from a marriage

This is not about a marriage of mine; nor is it, as in the title of Ingmar Bergman’s television series of the above name, any particular marriage, though inevitably partakes of both; mainly it is a way of bracketing some of my photographs taken over forty years. So this category comprises pictures which create for me an unexplored sense which lies behind the meaning of the word marriage. Here is the phtograph which recently gave rise to the idea. It was taken in the late sixties. My then wife was an accomplished dressmaker.

 Form Form

This next picture represents the period immediately following a row when it feels as though something has been irrevocably destroyed. Objects with which one lived in harmony have become estranged and the dread is that this has come about through one’s own actions. For what is spoiled to become vital again would seem to require a miracle. In such a wasteland one either defends one’s corner or prays for a resurrection. It is the latter position that Melanie Klein recognizes as a depressive anxiety. Whether my slanting image does convey the sense of disenchanted objects, I am unsure; I may simply be reading into it. But I am conscious of not wishing to resort to a pathetic fallacy and use conventional symbols of a wasteland. My photographs of the Gorbals presents a wasteland but within which there rises a vital spark. 

Spoil Spoil, 1995 

The next picture expresses a sense of prevention. In a recent discussion here is how the state of ennui was described to me:

“Ennui is a rich word, and describes a way of seeing beyond that of most people coupled with a disregard for the humdrum and a fascination with the miniscule or un-noticed scenes. Ennui is a state of boredom but different. A glazedness or malaise brought about by lack of stimulation and leading to a disdain or weariness for all things.” 

Compare this with the quote from Andrei Platonov’s The Foundation Pit in my First Post

Ennui of the cooker Ennui of the cooker 

The next picture expresses that part of the self that is untouched by relationship and remains an exile within marriage. It symbolises the thing in one that, despite being known, is of its nature solitary and remains isolated throughout. Then the other is not experienced as being there and is only there should they choose to stay.

 Mystique of the cloakroom Mystique of the cloakroom

And this one speaks for itself or, as Rab Noakes (1972) put it:

Drunk again Drunk again!

September 2, 2006 Posted by | black and white photography | Leave a comment

Reverie

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

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

First post

My mother, when a student at St Andrews University in the 1920s, wrote an article for the college magazine. It had a two-word title, the second one being Bibliophile. The first word I have forgotten, but it wasn’t biblical and certainly not bibulous. She had a love of words, my mother, which she passed on to me, because I love words too and sometimes give them a meaning of my own. My neologisms, however, along with my visual sense, came from elsewhere. So I am Photophile and this is my college magazine!  

I love black and white photography. I can’t remember when this started. Probably when I was around eighteen, no earlier than that, but by my late teens, I owned a secondhand Zeiss Ikon camera and took pictures of anonymous things with it. Well, not anonymous exactly; my word for it was innominate. That word meant to me something that no one would notice, or rather might notice, but because it had no name, would devalue. I took pictures along country roads, for instance, because I felt something ineffable about being there – some brooding presence – in a place that no one had marked, only passed by on the way to somewhere else. But, of course, it had to look that way! And the pictures were unremarkable, though I preferred to think of them as eliptical. They are all lost.

The other word I had for things like this was interstices. It meant that in between recognizable things lurks the unrecognized. Another word that pointed in the same direction for me was chinks. Chinks came after interstices. Whereas interstices referred to the unseen, something visible showed through the chinks, which opened momentarily like a tear in a skein or the space between two buildings as the train rushes past. It may well be there’s something quirky about my way of seeing. And that’s fine.

One writer who comes close to this apperception is Andrei Platonov, especially in his The Foundation Pit, like when Voschev addresses a dead leaf that had fallen to the ground: “You never had any meaning in life. Stay lying here – and I’ll find out what it was you lived and died for.” 

Andrei Platonov Andrei Platonov, died 1951

Olga Bobrova says about Platonov’s writing: “His prose seems to push the reader out into an open, unfriendly world. It makes one feel lonely, suffer together with its characters and struggle in the search for truth and the meaning of existence.”

At the moment my favourite photographer is Josef Koudelka.

But here is a photograph I took in the late 1960s as part of a series on Gorbals people. These two had really relaxed into being themselves by the time I got the shot. This used car dump was their stamping ground. I was influenced by a remark of Ken Heyman’s about engaging with his subject.

 Gorbals ladies Gorbals ladies

Shortly after this, the old Gorbals disappeared. Its rundown but impressive wide streets of tenements were torn down and replaced with high rise. Here is how one Gorbals website puts it:

After the Second World War, attempts were made to rehouse those in sub-standard tenement blocks by moving them to new estates on the edge of the city – though the sprawling local council estates of Castlemilk, Easterhouse, Pollok and Drumchapel created just as many social problems. In the Gorbals, the old buildings were demolished and new high-rise flats arose in their place – as filing cabinets for people. The old community spirit of the area was thus largely destroyed.

But it easy to romanticise in hindsight:

Step bairn Step bairn, Gorbals 1975

I have only just rediscovered this negative. This young girl was exceptional, quite unlike the sort of slum dweller I had encountered. I don’t remember what she said, but I do remember it was a flight of fantasy she was conducting when I clicked the shutter. By then I had graduated to a Nikon F. The picture is called Gorbals spirit.

Gorbals Spirit Click to view

July 30, 2006 Posted by | Andrei Platonov, black and white photography, Gorbals, interstices, Josef Koudelka, Ken Heyman | 1 Comment