Friday, June 15, 2012

Oh What An Atmosphere . . .

Greeting m'Hearties.
Yer Cap'n is a tad perplexed this week.
You see the cost of grog has gone up so much recently that I am between meself knowing what to do. At this rate if I keep dipping me hands into me pouches until there's nothing left how will the Goode Shippe FogBlog set sail?
What would you do me hearties, because my heart is fair sore with the thought of it.
All this sailing the seas of yore is a mighty expensive business.
It's enough to make an old sea dog go new-fangled or take to the shore . . .


Well folks, if you are still out there and reading- my good greetings to you - it takes some commitment on your behalf and I appreciate it.
I had no idea what I was going to do an FB about this week . . . certainly come Monday morning there was nothing in my head, and then come Tuesday the bare bones plopped out and have fleshed themselves into what you read at the moment. Funny how that goes. Anyway, in the midst of this terrible summer we are having you can count on me to remind you that come this Thursday the nights will be fair drawing in . . yep - hard to believe we have even left Winter behind and here we are heading for another.
As I get older I find Winter a more anxious time, and that is because I have to commute (albeit a tiny distance). I hated the massive snow we had in 2009/2010 - it was incredibly difficult getting around - I certainly don't want a repeat of that. So here's to an unseasonably dry and warm Winter! The Cap'n will tell you all about the Jetstream in unbelieveable detail if you prod him hard enough. Certainly any time I have asked him, he has looked up from his charts and asked "Are you sure?"
Anyway, whilst you are in Barbeque season, here's a little chiller to remind you that it is coming again . . .


I consider myself extremely fortunate to live in the house we currently live in. It was on the market for a long time before we bought it, and had been viewed by around 16 separate parties. It rambles over a goodly space, namely the lower part of the main body of the house (all mouldings and stone and high ceilings and quality woodwork) right through to the servant's quarters at the back (flush door mouldings, single brick-work and a general trimming back in level of fitting). Indeed where I write this is a converted scullery, with a closed-up hatch to my right through to the old kitchen. My feet are currently on the ghost site of a large Belfast sink  . .I think you get the drift. Anyway, it is a wonderful home and has an incredible atmosphere and we are lucky to live here. It was built in 1888 and the presence of the previous occupants is, at times, very present. Nothing bad I might add, the house loves a good party - there are no ghostly figures hovering and pointing the way to lost staircases - nevertheless a house as old as ours does carry a weight, and we are but caretakers of the shadow of all those years.
Allied to this, is that I live less than 100 yards away from what I think is one of the greatest of the 'unknown' Victorian Necropolis'.
It is really quite a place and isn't sanitized in the way a lot of modern graveyards are; it is real and honest and brutally shocking for the sheer numbers of children lost. In viewing the graves you get a total picture of Victorian society from top to bottom with all except the incredibly poor being interred there.
We go from Shipping Magnates and Industrialists and Newspaper men, to Hotel Owners and Mechanics. From Plumbers and Roofers and Firemen, to Butchers and Soldiers, Sailors and Wine Merchants . . I think you get the idea.
It is an incredible place and though I have walked there consistently for the last 20 years, I still discover new graves, new tragedies.
In modern graveyards I find a great deal less of the raw, brutal truth of death, for we as a society have moved so far away from it, that when it comes it terrifies and shocks and renders us into a state of helplessness. We are not exposed to the shell of the corpse. We do not accompany our loved ones in their moment of passing. Everything is hygenic. We (mostly) do not want to be exposed to it, and yet I feel to be there when someone you love dies is a great privilege.
I am not making light of it, honestly I am not, but today death is something we almost put aside. It seems that people are not prepared for it, when as the saying goes the only two things of surety in life are death and taxes. That is not to say that it wasn't a tragic thing for our ancestors, of course it was, it is just that (along with everything else in industrialised society) there seems to be such a smoothing out of things these days. Dealing with death is quick and efficient. You phone the undertaker and everything is arranged. Maybe it is better that way?
But this is getting away from my point. In previous eras death was not only accepted, it became romanticised, and especially so in Victorian times, where the whole concept of tombs and shrouds and the grey shades of spirits as they searched in their loss amongst the broken stones of a darkened graveyard was really something. Much great art was created with this feeling as the underlying influence.
These days such things get lumped under 'Gothic', but the modern sense of the word is too loose, too 'pop' cultured.
Proper Victorian Gothic was a serious and sombre affair closely linked to Queen Victoria's lengthy period of mourning. Many of the graves I look at in 'my' graveyard are laden with terms of heart-felt endearment and an unquestioning acceptence of God's part in one's fate.
There is much talk of Clay and Sleep and Eternity; and also of Awakenings and The Hand Of God, as not just the leveller of a person's life, but as a gentle and benevolent helping hand to Eternity. There is talk of Love and Loss, of Longing and Tears, but above all else there is a quiet and waiting dignity to the place.
The expecation of arising from the dead is at times palpable.
In short the place has an atmosphere and this is why I am drawn to it.
I have walked there in all weathers, at all hours and at all times of year. But I have yet to make a photograph there that completely encapsulates the spirit of the place. In fact, I often walk there with no camera at all.
I have been haunted there.
My imagination has taken flight.
On a Winter's Evening at dusk, in the cold and semi-quiet, the feeling of being surrounded by the dead (and not just cold bones, but waiting spirits) is really quite something. And there, you see, I am romanticising. It is easy to do if you are of an imaginative nature.
I love the place - it is my little piece of countryside in a big city.


To my eyes, there are two works of great art which more than most others, somehow manage to convey the spirit of the quiet earth of a twilight graveyard. They were created out of Gothic Romanticism and Symbolism.
The first is by Arnold Böcklin. He was a Swiss painter of enormous skill, though largely unknown these days. Isle Of The Dead was loosly based upon the English Cemetery in Florence, which was near to his studio and was also the place where his daughter was buried. There were five versions painted. I have chosen the third one because it is lighter than the others and I prefer it.

An early version of the painting was commissioned by a Madame Berna, a widow who wanted a painting with a dream-like atmosphere.

And to quote Russ Abbott, 'Oh what an Atmosphere'!
It is one of those paintings that instantly tells a story and sets one's imagination up and running. To my eye it is utterly contemporary, and yet it beats modern painting in one way - it is totally heartfelt. It is coming from a deep and rigorous understanding of death and one's place in the scheme of things.
It is the purest distillation of everything Gothic.
The figures in the boat will never turn around, and yet your eye is caught, and from landing on the figures (especially the shrouded one) initially, it starts to wander around the rock tombs and the cypress and the landing. And then all sorts of questions start to arise.
Why are there so few tombs?
Why the water?
Who is the figure in the back of the boat?
And then an obvious one . . how can someone paint with such skill and remain un-lauded in modern times?
Well, he was one of Hitler's favourite painters (apparently) and one can't help but wonder whether such a tainting could be the reason no one is interested in him these days . . . It certainly is a huge weight for a reputation to bear isn't it.
To give Herr Böcklin his due, apparently:

"Prints of the work were very popular in central Europe in the early 20th century — Vladimir Nabokov observed that they were to be "found in every Berlin home." Freud, Lenin, and Clemenceau all had prints of it in their offices."

Just imagine  . . Freud AND Lenin.
I think from that, one can take the power of the painting for granted.
By all accounts:

"Böcklin himself provided no public explanation as to the meaning of the painting, though he did describe it as “a dream picture: it must produce such a stillness that one would be awed by a knock on the door."

Oh boy - in this age of ever present noise and iPods everywhere and traffic and aircraft, and no one listening to the sounds of nature and birdsong ever - just take a moment to imagine that knock. It would echo through your soul.

Arnold Böcklin's "Isle Of The Dead" - 3rd version

The second painting is curiously by an even lesser known genius of the brush, Ferdinand Keller.
Herr Keller was a German 'historical' painter who, like Böcklin, was lauded in his day and yet now is virtually unknown. 
The majority of his work seems to have been of historical scenes - a style very much in vogue in the late 19th Century. 
But it wasn't until 1900 that Böcklin's work hit him and he produced the painting below:

Ferdinand Keller's "Böcklin's  Tomb"

Two things strike you about this painting, the first to me is the deep air of melancholy. It is stunningly beautiful, but also although of a similar style, very different to Böcklin's  work. The second thing that strikes me is the use of colour. 
Were I to make colour photographs I would want them all to look like this. It takes great skill to paint so beautifully. I love the distant mountain, I love the Cypress, and I love the water. The sense of loss is palpable.
Just as with Böcklin's  painting, I think this one strikes deep into the earth of archetypes and legend. 
Böcklin's  influence is writ large, yet it is it's own piece. It is so Gothic it hurts.
A wonderful tribute and a stunning work of art.
Which brings me back to Herr Böcklin. 
I can only say one thing - what a bloke. He deserves to be better appreciated. In this age of instant art  and a billion new images and technological fadgetry (fad and gadget!) to work in a quiet and unassuming way and produce work of timeless power - that is something.
Art, Death, Philosophy, Psychology and Dictatorship? Name one modern artist who could claim to influence such things these days.
And now, like a crowbar in a marquetry workshop:

The above is a photograph I made on a Winter's dusk. It was bitterly cold and I wanted to try out my new secondhand late-60's Schneider 90mm Angulon lens on my Sinar. It is a very fine lens considering its size which is tiny. It does get soft at the corners but stop down enough and that is gone. Were I to buy another 90mm it would have to be something more modern with a wider aperture. I find the combination of a wide angle lens and ground glass focussing at a maximum aperture of f6.8 in twilight conditions, damn near impossible!
My notes say: "Nice neg - shame about the bush!"
The convergence was intentional.
The negative was made around 4pm on the 27th of December, so pure twilight (or gloam if you prefer).
It was made on Ilford HP5 at EI 320. I placed the stonework on ZVI, but have printed everything down. Exposure was an incredible 145 Seconds at f22 and it was developed in Barry Thornton's 2 bath developer. Had I developed it in HC110 I would have had better contrast, however Barry's developer has kept the sombre mood.
The building you see, though a Mausoluem, was never used as such as it was used for groundsman's equipment like lawnmowers and such. It appears to have not been used for a long time as the roof has collapsed and rot is slowly eating everything.
I hope you think I have captured a bit of atmosphere. It is only a pale shadow compared to the masters' work above, but at least I have tried. Maybe one of these days I will get there.
However, for now, I am happy with the result and in hindsight, I think some of the gloom and chill anticipation of the Resurrection made its way through the lens and onto the film.


  1. One of the best FB's so far! Thank you!

  2. Blimey - the others must be s***e then! Har har just joking with you m'lad!

  3. Ah no really, cap'n....please keep writing!

  4. Apparently Arnold Böcklin also influenced works by Rachmaninov. "Isle of the Dead" in a symphonic poem which I hadn't heard before, and "Die Heimkehr" in his Op32 B minor Prelude, which I have listened to countless times. Amazing... I knew neither Herr Böcklin nor his influence on Rach, so thanks for this.