Friday, January 04, 2013

Rum, Sodomy & The Lash


" 'Said Captain.
I said Wot?
' Said Captain.
I said Wot?
' Said Captain.
I said Wot?
' Said Captain.
I said Wot You Want?"


Sometimes you have to suffer for your art, and, there's no way round this, darkroom work is one of those times. It does really seem ridiculous to me that these days, the key thing that defines you as a photographer (your images) is usually parcelled out to software and a machine. It is sort of like a music box. All of the right notes in all the right places, clearly defined, nothing left to chance, with each little tine being pinged at the correct time. Yes it is music. But it isn't music.
A musician (well a decent musician) can coax an unwilling lump of wood or metal into warm, organic life with a depth of feeling you wouldn't believe possible. A simple vibrato on a note can bring a full grown male human to a quivering blubbing lump. I think this is because music is such an intrinsic part of being human that we have an art form that can cut through all the insanity of modern life to the quick of what it is to be human.
I own a number of albums where the essence of organic musicianship has been distilled into something which is so heartfelt and deeply meaningful, that they seem to transcend the medium and become something other.
I am sure you've got a few like that too, but they are sort of rare aren't they?
Two I can point to with a definitive "That one" are by the Canadian artist Bruce Cockburn.
He's a funny sort is old Bruce. I must admit that although he has been going since the late 1960's/early 1970's there's been a certain patchiness; a patchiness which seems to have increased with time, but then again maybe he just changed . . .
So, I'll forgive him that, but will go back to 'High Winds, White Sky' and 'Sunwheel Dance' (his second and third albums respectively) and state that in them he has created two complete worlds.
Even (and especially) the covers work with the music to create a whole.
Obviously recommending music is a difficult thing . . one man's meat and all that, but if you have a penchant for British folk of the 1970's and like the thought of being tucked away in a cold Canadian Winter, then either of these albums does the trick completely.

The Cover to High Winds was taken at a place in Toronto called Ward Island. The photographer was George Pastic and somehow, the cover and the songs on the album fit like a hand in a glove. It even extends down to the whimsy of the enclosed booklet - Bruce on a bicycle; Bruce being mysterious in a river; hand-written lyrics - it's as near a total artistic statement as albums get.
And that is an important thing, because it is a statement of intent; a complete world, and you, buying the album (and thereby contributing to the artists's well-being) are being invited to purchase a seat to that world. For the asking price and a possible lifetime of pleasure, it was (and still is) a small price to pay.

The booklet was small and very beautiful.
It sets out with a purpose and achieves it.

Though not quite the same as a statement of intent, 'Sunwheel Dance' from 1970 (recorded in Toronto like its predecessor) has, if you let it get into you, such a feel of a lonely, homely cabin in the middle of nowhere, that you would never want to leave.


The cover photograph is by Bart Schoales and is as near dammit a perfect introduction to the themes of the album (light and spirituality).
The final track brings in outsiders to the cabin, visitors if you like (though the band has been present throughout the album, they have done what really good bands do, become transparent) and their singing in harmony is a thing of great wonder. It makes you feel so completely homely and comforted that you transcend the music. Your soul takes wings and moves and is moved in no uncertain ways. Well mine does anyway.
You see, certain pieces of art can transcend their weighty dimensional anchors and move you to places where spirit and feeling and consciousness combine.
You can get that with photographs too - there are images that bear multiple viewings, whereby the photographer has transcended all the dimensional realities of a piece of the world carefully chopped down to fit into a rectangular or square view of the world, and somehow managed to imbue the essence of their art into what you are viewing.
I could choose many actually, but two random examples are as follows:

Wynn Bullock - Tide Pool 1957

Walker Evans - Alabama Tenant Farmer's Wife

As you can see, they are utterly different, and yet I never tire of looking at either of them, simply because they speak to me.
So . . . remember at the top of the page before I started digressing, I was talking about darkroom work and how it was important?
Right, here we go.
It isn't just important, it is vital.
And why do I say that? Well, despite what the populists would have you believe, photography is a craft rather than an art.
It can be an art, definitely, but when you look back at its history and the great men and women who have made it their own, you are struck by one thing. Most of these people were craftsmen. 
They nearly all developed their own film.
They nearly all printed their own prints.
Most got their hands dirty (and stained, and suffered metol-fingernail) letting selenium and hypo and acetic acid and pyrogallol and metol and hydroquinone seep into their souls.
They laboured in dark places for our education of what it is to be human and in doing so managed to be able to transform the seemingly mundane into the everyday extraordinary.
That is craft.
They captured our intensely incredible, three dimensional world and rendered it into two dimensions.
And what dimensions.
They can take your soul and inspire.
They can make you weep and laugh and rage and crave change.
And they can change too, providing a voice, a proof of a world transformed or laid bare for all to see.
The seemingly humble photographic print is a powerful thing. it can change the world. It can change your life. It can be an exquisite object of love and labour. Tactile and beautiful; signed or unsigned, it is the distillation of photography, and as such should be treasured and revered, because you see print-making walks hand in hand with photography. 
It is as human an activity as making music.
Joseph McKenzie once said to me he thought I was lucky being a musician (which I sort of was) because of the immediacy of being able to create music. Were I able to speak to him now, I would say he was far luckier being a great photographer, because he was able to produce lasting works of extreme beauty and truth.
And that is why friends, I urge you. If you are at all interested in photography, you simply have to try and make photographic prints. It doesn't have to be a complex setup. I loaded film into daylight tanks in cupbards for years; I have contact printed 35mm negatives onto 6x4" resin coated paper. I have worked at the very most basic level of exposing paper with a torch and processing the paper in the dark because I couldn't afford a safelight, and what moved me to this madness? The love of the print.
I still operate on the same 'guerilla' basis; yes I now have a darkroom, but it is very rough and ready (and without any running water or sinks) however I can happily produce works of art that are entirely of my own creation, from making the photograph to developing to printing to archiving to writing notes on the back.
If you really want to achieve the beauty of the print, something that you are entirely in control of, then it can be done. It just requires a bit of thought.
I am not going to teach you how to make a print (there are many great texts online or on bookshop shelves that will do the trick), all I am going to say is that if you farm all your photographic effort out to the same software that everyone else uses and then let a machine spray ink onto paper and then say you have a print, then you are only half a photographer. There. That's me damned for ever!
Is it any wonder that most serious galleries these days still tend to poo-poo the inkjet?
I think they feel the same as me.
Yes it is an image, but no, it isn't a photograph **.
The following pictures, whilst poor scans are of prints.
The prints are properly processed and archivally stored.
They will outlast me, and you.
They are my wee attempts at rendering the world I see into something that hopefully moves the viewer in the same way I was moved when I made the images.
 They are entirely my own work from beginning to end.

 Reverse of print with printing details

Full frame negative.
Grade 2 Ilford Galerie
Kodak Polymax Developer
Archivally Fixed in 'Plain' Fix
Archivally washed

A pleasant surprise
 flip the sleeve over and another print!

Silverprint Archival polyester sleeve.
These are great for long term storage.

I store my best prints in Silverprint Archival sleeves and then in Timecare Archival boxes. 
Yes it is expensive, but why not take the best care of what is, after all, a highly crafted product.
One day I might try and put on an exhibition - you never know.
Thanks for reading and God bless.

** I have no choice with regard to colour - it seems to have gone too far, but the monochrome print (my own concern) is as vital now as it ever was.

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