leo photophile

Through a glass darkly

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

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

Entry Point

I have loved the work of Israel Bidermanas (Izis) for many years

Approaching Isle St Louis, Paris, 1946

Feel the tension building – and its dissolution in the thin light, the whisper of ennui. For me this is an image on the edge between joy and disenchantment: things can go either way.

July 30, 2006 Posted by | black and white photography | 2 Comments