Friday, May 11, 2012

Tooty Tooty Toot . . It's Hip To Be Square (Part Two)

Greeting playmates.
Last week I worked ee 'arder than a bilge pump in a high sea! So this week we're taking some time out in the Sargasso.
The sails are down.
The grog is open and all the work is done.
So sits ye back and wiggle your toes in the Sun . . it doesn't get much easier than this.


I promised at the end of last week's blog something more Zen and I meant it.
This is a poor photograph of the most 'Zen' thing I own. The 'saucer' is part of the cup and the whole piece is hand decorated on delicate and thin porcelain. It has a certain unassuming presence and yet it asks you to pick it up and hold it by dint of its beauty and its functionality.

It is, I believe, Japanese* and belonged to my Aunty Jane - a remarkable and wonderful person.
I owe her my love of walking, because, somehow, she managed to encourage the podgy little boy you might have seen in previous FBs (who hated pretty much any form of physical exercise) to develop a deep love for exploring nature, and with that came the need to walk.
She did it with Penguin chocolate biscuits, and it was very simple.
We hardly ever had chocolate biscuits at home and especially not ones in shiny foil wrappers, so her bribery was really very easy. To wit: come along with me on this walk and when we get halfway we'll stop and you can have this Penguin. And we did and it worked.
Our halfway, was at the foot of 'The Brae' - a steep road that led from the A74 up to Lochwood. It was quiet back in those days as universal car ownership hadn't yet occurred, and we would rest and watch the clouds chasing their shadows on the Wamphray Hills. When we had finished we would head back up The Brae, or if we were feeling fit, head down to have a news with Mr & Mrs Fraser at Orchard Farm and then continue on a circular route back up and along the lanes to Rose Cottage where she lived.
I reckon the overall journey was near enough 3 miles all told, but the addition of that biscuit made it seem hardly any distance at all.
Thank you Jane!


Now, after that aside, this is where I get my tyre-fitters grip on, get out that tyre-iron and try and cack-handedly lever in something about 'Zen' in photography.
It's a concept isn't it?
Some photographs can have a huge amount of stillness and contemplation to them, whereas others will rush around like a two-headed chicken shouting about their importance. Certainly in the field of landscape photography I reckon you want more of the former and less of the latter. 
To my mind, the former equates to capturing 'atmosphere', whereas the latter becomes something that is merely a recording of place, usually titillated by the use of a wide angle lens, or that dreaded artifice of the graduated colour filter. 
Oh gosh (now the juices are flowing) I wrote a piece for Amateur Photographer a number of years back where I said that such photographers had a severe case of Cornishitis.  This was meant as no disrespect at all to the photographer Joe Cornish who has very much his own style, just more as a dig to the people who fill magazines with images that are trying to replicate his look. It is endemic actually and there is a certain magazine (not AP) concerned with photographing in the outdoors where, to be honest, the photographs have little more value to them than of being visual records of GPS points. There is no feeling for the place in them at all!
Landscape generally needs atmosphere  unless the scene is so utterly awe-inspiring that a visual record of it will suffice. Some masters manage to combine the two. Mr. Ansel Adams' masterwork 'Clearing Winter Storm' have managed to achieve that .  . but anyway, I am moving away from things a bit, so I'll clear my head, take a deep breath and continue . . . .
The thing with atmosphere (and I firmly believe this) is that it comes to you. You can't find it . . you might stumble upon it, but go out actively searching and I doubt you'll get anything.
It is a 'Zen' thing that occurs at the moment you least expect it - everything just comes together and there you go, your picture is almost fully-formed.
When you apply thinking about square photographs with an open attitude to the terrain you are moving through, you can find the most unexpected compositions turn up.

What is wrong with this photograph is that it has too much sky.
What is right with this photograph is that it has too much sky.
The two points contradict each other and yet the composition works.
I don't think it would have worked half as well as a rectangle, as the river would have appeared to be flowing out of the frame.
Being made as a square photograph balances everything. The format holds it all tight and, for want of a better phrase, gives an ordinary scene a 'Zen' and contemplative quality.
The river balances the vast sky and also the stand of scrub and trees that appear to be ethereal. To my mind it is quite possible that they aren't just a part of the natural scene, but possibly some sort of magical portal. They were dense and filled with birds who were just awakening, and although they were an obvious feature, there was some sort of secrecy to them. It is highly commendable (and a bit telling) that the farmer hadn't grubbed them out when all around for miles were 'modern' flat fields.
The light was extraordinary and unremarkable at the same time - just typical Fenland light.
The mood and atmosphere of the place found me and I was lucky enough to have my Rollei with me.
Despite the difficulties of square composition, a square photograph can move beyond its bounds.
We were staying at my Mum's house and it was the start of a period where her Alzheimers was starting to get worse, and there was a feeling of sadness that this could be one of the last 'normal' times we visited her. Despite this we filled our time there as we always did, with laughter and endless tea and Scrabble.
Of an evening, my wife and son and I used to go for nice walks along the Kyme Eau (as the river is called) and the quiet feeling of the place infused itself into us.
One still morning in April at about 6am I left my sleeping family and headed out with the Rolleiflex and a tripod to see what could find me. The fields were saturated with a heavy dew and I made a number of photographs before I chanced upon this feeling.
At the time it looked beautiful on the Rollei's ground glass, but little did I know what this combination of film and developer would produce.
I used Kodak TMax 100 at EI 100 and it was developed in 1:3 Ilford Perceptol at 24C for 12 minutes.
When I got back to Mums' the sun was shining in through our East facing bedroom window, next door's cockerel had started up, but everyone was still asleep. I quietly climbed back into bed with a big smile on my face and awoke an hour or so later with that same smile and we all went down to one of Mum's famous hearty breakfasts.


Just in case you are interested, Kyme Fen is a proper rural farming community based around the villages of North and South Kyme in Lincolnshire. It has deep historical roots being traceable as far back as the Ancient Briton tribe the Contritani; it was one of the areas of early Iron Age land reclamation and there is a feel to it that encourages contemplation and a willingness to settle.
Indeed just across the road from Mums' was a field with the earthmarks of an abbey, replete with fish ponds (for food). South Kyme church is heavily linked with the life of Henry VIII, and the village used to be the sort of place where people were born, lived, worked and died without going anywhere else.
So you can see that what on the surface might appear mundane, isn't actually at all.
Oh, and sorry about this, but just to break your contemplative reverie, that object you can see at the left hand bottom side in the river . . . it was a polystyrene fish and chip box.
Sadly even translucent and transcending beauty is touched by us messy humans.
Stay Square Mein Fronds!

* It is beautifully translucent, rather like that light on Kyme Fen.
I seem to remember seeing something similar on Antiques Roadshow about 15 years ago . . .if you know anything about it, please let me know!


  1. Just picked this up from Scottish Photographer's SPEM - :-) Have enjoyed this first bite at your blog and I definitely agree re: Cornishitis, although I call it something different ;-) Will now read the rest...

  2. Hi Lucy - many thanks for the comment. Hope you enjoy the rest . . . I am trying to make it a weekend thing now . . . next one due Saturday morning!