Friday, February 22, 2013

The Photograph As Memory

Morning playmates, well, another momentous week.
Sheephouse has been particularly phylos filosphi philosofic thoughtful this week. 
He's been mooning around the decks, stroking his beard and gazing into the distance. 
He looked pensive and sad and happy all at the same time, and then disappeared below decks for hours at a time. Indeed the only way we knew he was still aboard, was that we were still asail and in the middle of a large patch of sea so he couldn't have got off, and then there was the occasional muffled shout of 'Arse!' from below.
Mog pestered him for while and I think that helped. 
You see being an extraordinary mouser, that cat has cleared this ship of every speck of rodent life, and has been getting lazy. So I bought some cat-mint mice for him last time we was in port, and have taken to hiding them in inaccessible places so that he has to learn even more cunning to find them.
Sheephouse appeared on the upper deck on Thursday, and Mog, being a cunning old cat, yeowled a happy yeowl, and went and started rubbing around his legs, very friendly-like. 
Sheephouse picked him up for a cuddle, and Mog wriggling free, leaped onto his shoulder, swiped down the cat-mint mouse that was caught in a rope behind Sheephouse's head, and in the same moment managed to blow-off in Sheephouse's face whilst leaping free back to the deck. 
Sheephouse looked disgusted (a cat's fart is powerful bad when the mice are all  gone and there's only fish-scraps and porridge left).
Oh how we laughed.
That cat - he'll do anything for a bit o'cat-mint.


You'll have to stick with this - there is photography here (as usual) but we're going to take a circuitous mountain path to it, so get your boots on and make sure your Mum has packed some nice sandwiches and juice . . .
Writing FB is something I can only compare with giving birth, except when you give birth you are aware of the presence of what you are about to thrust into the world. With FB this is definitely not the case. I will generally publish it on a Friday, and leave thinking about the following weeks until the next day, Saturday.
If I am lucky I'll already have a subject lined up, but if I don't, well . . . how do you drag a concept out of the air? it is bloody difficult actually, and though I might make light of, it is somewhat of a burden and a self-made responsibility
I have (at first very willingly) shoehorned myself into this regularity, but as every human knows, when you sit on the pot for a shit, if it isn't going to happen, it really isn't going to happen.
So, last weekend (which was a typical Scottish mix of overcast chill with a wind in from the North Sea and an untypical [Sunday afternoon] warmth with pale, watery sunshine) I was at odds with myself - namely:

People are enjoying reading this, (and a warm Hoots! to all regular readers by the way) you can't let them down (that's the angel on my shoulder . .) You have to come up with something.
But I've got nothing to say.
But you have to come up with something witty and erudite that people can think about or just enjoy for the writing.
But I really have nothing to say . .

So, for an entire weekend I didn't have a scooby as to what the nature of this week's post could be.
Saturday was taken up with a jaunty wee trip to the home of golf (not that I like golf, but it is a fine town to visit) St Andrews, which, in the Winter months, is the province of locals and students. It is quiet, and very much subdued -  more of the feel of how you would think a market town with one of the countries oldest Universities should feel.
And Sunday? Sunday was a lovely day. I had intended going out with the Koni-Omega and writing something about that, however I awoke late and to be honest couldn't be arsed doing anything, so I made a pot of tea, and picked up a book which I have been attempting to read recently.
Now as you may have gathered from posts in the past, I love reading, but for the past year of so I have really struggled with it. This has had to do with being absolutely knackered on my break at work and, instead of reading, which I always used to do, I have been having a cat-nap, so no reading gets done. Mornings and weekends? well they've been taken up with writing FB!
So last Sunday I thought, read. And I did, for a decent portion of the day. I added into the mix a lovely walk with my wife, and trying to eradicate a stray crab apple tree whose roots are I think starting to cause problems near our house; dyeing my hair; tidying up, etc etc, but still nothing got done with regard to FB at all.
Come the evening and we sat down at 9PM, watched an episode of 'Hustle' and a dodgy dvd of performances of bands on 'The Old Grey Whistle Test', and there was still nothing done.
However, a bottle of wine in, a thought struck me:
Although I had definitely read the book I was reading at some point in the past, I had absolutely no recollection of the plot.
This is strange don't you think . . after all, when a plot is so good that it moves you. when the writing is so fantastic that you are overcome with the economy of words and their subtleties then surely you must remember it?
And yet I didn't.
Strangely, I've enjoyed the two follow-ups in the series which I read around the Christmas period, but the first book . .nope - it is like a black hole.
Oh, and it's called 'Gifts' by the way, by one of my favourite writers, Ursula LeGuin. It is marketed as a book for late teenage readers, however I would dearly love to meet the teenager who could read this these days and get something from it. I really would!
So, baffled by my complete lack of recollection, and somewhat disturbed too (dementia looms big for anyone of 50+ years) I did a little searching to see exactly when I had read it. It might sound a little anal, but I keep a list of books I've read and the dates and years etc. and according to my records I read it from the 14th to the 21st of May in 2005.
So roughly seven years ago.
Not really a great deal of time, yet enough to eradicate it entirely from my memory.
And this set me thinking that if I can't remember that, what can I remember?
And such is the nature of these things, bingo, like a bolt from the blue, a topic for FB!
So, I consulted my photographic notebooks, and discovered that 2005 was the year I gave up photography entirely for a year.

A nation faints . . .
Women clutch newborns to them for fear of the consequences.
Grown men break down and weep!
Governments hastily call Emergency Meetings.
Stock Markets wobble.

But it was the right thing to do.
I had been too intense; worrying about it, obsessed to the nth degree, burnt out on repeated re-readings of 'The Negative' and 'The Print'.
After a miserable underexposed attempt at people photography (at night, by tungsten light and without a flashgun) I thought feck it, and stopped.
My chemicals went off.
My Rollei sat in its case.
My aesthetic sensibilities atrophied.
In a word, I turned my back on the one thing I can do without really thinking about it.
But the strange thing is, that apart from an entry in my photographic notebooks and a black hole in my contact prints, I have little recollection of the year's hiatus.
It is strange that isn't it?
After all, it was only seven years ago,  so hardly a lifetime, and yet now like a foreign land I visited with a blindfold on!
So where is this leading us you ask?
Get on with it Sheephouse . . we haven't got all day . . .
Well, leafing through said notebook, I looked at all the crazily detailed notes I make for every film, and I found the details of what I had written made things most clear.
So I went and pored over my contact prints and stopped looking at the notes altogether.
There was no need.
Each little 6x6 and 35mm image jumped off the paper like a tiny bite-sized parcel of memento.
So much so, that viewing some of my mountain trips with my Rollei, I found the smell and sweat of the sheer bloody effort of Munro climbing rising off the paper.
The feelings appeared without any tickling at all, almost like they are etched into my brain and physique permanently.
So why can I remember these things in such intimate detail, when a book which I am loving reading (and more than likely loved reading before) has left not the merest dent on my memory at all?
Is it to do with the physical reality of the photograph?
I think so.
Now this is where things get a bit nebulous, and the obvious effect of a whole pot of strong Yorkshire Gold tea, start to kick in . . .
In having taken a small cup to drink from the river of time and in ingesting it (by making a photograph of it) have I have somehow imbued time and memory with permanence?
Have I lifted something of life out of its transience; its fleet-footed hurtle towards oblivion?
Is the memory more real to me because it is something I have created.
Have I played the hand of God and captured something?
When you really start to think about it, you realise that a photograph is a truly remarkable thing.
Native Americans were right to be feared of the camera - it does steal souls.
Just as a person is forever changing, so the photograph is witness to that change. 
Your portrait is made, either seriously or in a casual manner, and that is you, in permanence, till imperfect processing do you part.
It is the same with landscape and cats, and fish, and insects and buildings.
To paraphrase Heraclitus, "No man can step in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man" .
The river of time moves on and we sail our little boats upon it for a while, and then we sink and become part of the detritus; yet that little spot where we pulled into the bank, had a lovely picnic and had our photograph taken is almost permanently etched.
Does this make sense?
I am not sure myself actually (and God bless you for sticking with it) but what I am sure of is that in scanning my contact prints of those early films I am easily able to recollect the photograph's making and circumstances of their making. 
So am I trying to say that a photograph is a very complex aide-mémoire or is it something else?
Well, I make aide-mémoires all the time:
Look at this.
Buy that.
How about the other.
What about using such and such?
But at the end of the day they're just bits of paper with notes on - they don't amount to anything more than things to jog my mind into motion - they become (and are of) the everyday, the mundane.
I purposefully go out with my camera - it is a deliberate act.
So is it the act of photographing that puts a full-stop (period) on time?
Does the making of a photograph add extra layers of formality and memory to the moment so that it becomes something other. 
An object that transcends the multi-dimensionality of the Universe and yet renders it in a simple two dimensional form?
I suppose it could be so really.
Funny to think that the family photograph (very quickly) became something other than just a formal picture and ended up as the defining memory of things happening.

Remember when you spilled your tea over the cat and Dad had his camera ready?
Look at that haircut!
I see you're still wearing the same trousers . . .

That is the power and the pain of photography - something which we all take for granted. It is remarkable don't you think that as human beings with our long-held (and I mean generations long) oral tradition of story-telling and the recounting of momentous occasions, that when something came along which supplanted the need for it anymore we dropped it like a stone. 
And where is that tradition today? 
Almost gone, so much so that around the world there are centres for trying to keep it alive, and remember that up until roughly a century ago, that tradition was very alive and kicking.
The photograph has become the Holy Trinity:
the tradition of recording the passing of life and time
an aide-mémoire
and a semi-truthful/truthful rendition of our world.
The old saying "a picture is worth a thousand words" rings true. A photograph doesn't need to be justified by a note, it stands on its own merits. 
This is all fairly obvious stuff, so excuse me for musing in public, but as I said at the start I have little to say this week!
Anyway, onwards and upwards as they say.
Time is a funny thing - there was me writing about last weekend's visit to St Andrews, and below is a photograph of a visit some 20 years ago.
It is a fairly extreme example of a family snap/accident that requires no explanation, captured with great skill by my wife. However for want of anything at all to write I'll give you some background . . .
The story:
Well, being young and in love we'd made some sandwiches and hopped on the bus, got off, and after a wander around the numerous secondhand bookshops there used to be in St Andrews, we made our way down to the bluff overlooking the SeaLife Centre and knocked back the best part of a bottle of Pinot Grigio whilst enjoying said picnic. 
The day was typical of St Andrews in the Spring - bitingly cold, and incredibly windy. We were really being buffeted around. Anyway, in the interests of warmth we leaped about a bit, and I decided it would be a good idea to jump off a bench . . which I did.
Now happenstance has kicked in, because the shutter lag on the original Olympus MjU (which we were using) is about . . oh, three years (or so it seems), and yet my wife has anticipated that and managed to make a photograph that makes it look like I am falling from about 10,000 feet.
I still think it is a remarkable photo.
No motordrives or digital spraying for us . .oh no!

Man falls from 10,000 feet
Impact approaches

But say we hadn't taken the photographs and I had just noted down:
Went to St Andrews.
Had a great picnic and leaped around to get warm because of the cold and the wind.
It wouldn't have the same effect would it?
It would mean nothing to you certainly, and yet, to us, the photograph sums the day up.
Appreciate the greyness and the wind! Cold eh? 
Look at those breakers on the beach! 
Look at the sky! 
Look at the loony in mid-air!
The photograph has become an iconic image for my family - it has brought the day to life and provided an artefact for my son to look at, laugh at and wonder at the lunacy of his parents.
That is the power of a photograph.
My son might laugh at it, shake his head and say 'Oh dear!', but in many ways I have imbued a sense of perpetuity to his life too . . . 
I made the portrait below a long time ago, and now the wee boy you see there is pretty much a man, handsome and almost taller than his Dad. 
Very opinionated, unique, and at times a loveable pain in the arse. 
He now refuses to ever pose for photographs for me again. 
Ah dear, changed days . . .
This was made on the second film I put through my beloved and then newly acquired Rolleiflex T in March of 2003.
It was a freezing day, but a very young Alec Turnips and myself went for a walk around our local graveyard. There are another 4 frames of him, but I like this one because it isn't an ordinary portrait. 
My poor technique, camera shake and use of a wide aperture on the Rollei have resulted in my capturing a photograph of a ghost . . . well I think so anyway. I don't know why it makes me think of Russia, but it does.

Lost Ghost

The film was the original and long-lamented Agfa APX 100 (they might say the new stuff is the same, but as Public Enemy said: 'Dont Believe The Hype'. Old APX was an incredible film, the new stuff is just so-so)
I developed it in 1:50 Rodinal. You can get quite dense with such a combination, but it works and they always made a really great combo.
Anyway, there you have it, a sideways trip into the land of thought and musing. If this has prompted you to think differently about photographs, then that is good. If it has made you question what you are exactly doing the moment you push that shutter release, then even better! It's good to be curious about the world, and it is a good thing to question the nature of something you know inside and out.
I hope it all made sense . . . now I have to think of something for next week.
As usual, take care, God Bless and thanks for reading.


  1. Trying to come up with something meaningful every week is difficult. I know; I'm trying to do the same (although my stuff is not philosophical at all). But 7 seems to be a miraculous number. Just about the right number of days to distill one's thoughts.

    After years of photographing I've found that my contact sheets also function as entries into a visual diary. I always refer back to them when I want to know when we did this or that.

    Your line following the Heraclitus quote is beautiful. Well said.

    I hope this doesn't put more pressure on your shoulders, but again, great post and a joy to read on Weekend morning.


  2. Thank you once again Omar!
    No, no pressure, but I do feel myself being worn a bit thin by the need to think of something new every week, but then again, maybe I just need to get out more!
    Thank goodness Spring is on its way - hopefully I can find something interesting to write about in one of my hill adventures . . . I suppose I could write about old ones, but the thrill of a new experience and all that . . I'll maybe save myself up for that.
    Thank you once again though - I very much appreciate your thoughts.