Friday, March 15, 2013

Happiness, Death and The End Of All Things

Morning playmates.
Well another week done and closer to death.
Oh yes, you can't beat a bit o' optimism to start the weekend.
I was once asked was I a 'half empty' or 'half full' glass sort of person, to which I wittily replied, "Fceck that m'hearties, gimme a bottle o'grog and I'll show 'ee!"
Oh yes, this's the life.
As me old shipmate Ray used to say "Drink Entire Against The Madness Of Crowds."
I never quite knew what he meant by that, but man could he could drink. Not grog neither, but LIFE.
You know, not life, but LIFE. The former distinguished by the seven shades of shite you have to deal with every day, the latter by joy and happiness and wonder.
The world's a weird place maties, no two ways about it.
I happened to be having a wonderful convo with Sheephouse this week about such things - he said there's weirder in the world than either of us could comprehend and then proceeded to detail the stuff below.
It's a sad tale, but there's hope in it, and longing too.
I was moved to tears me hearties, oh yes, and the last time that happened was when Slug (our cook) decided to try a concoction of plantain and chilli on us. And it wasn't for eatin' neither, it was a poltice for dry skin. He swore by it, but he hasn't tried it since . . the keel-haulin' sorted that out.
It was most affectatious on Mog though . . within no time at all he'd lost his old matted fur, been stripped back to red wheals and baldy cat-flesh, and had grown a shiny new afro-coat . . all within the week!
It was miraculous.
He looks a bit like a cat-shaped storm cloud these days . . .


Regular readers of FB (Fogblogites . . FBishisters, or just plain F-ers) will know that given half a chance I will drone on about my childhood for hundreds and hundreds of words . . and you know what folks. I have done that, but I am not going to do that this time, because most of it is up there, and as I have said recently it is getting increasingly hard to write anything new or interesting for this, so excuse me whilst I run off in a slightly different direction.
Curiously, it still does have something to do with my upbringing, but it's more like a 'what else can they do to you' situation . . . and that sounds bad, but it isn't really like that. I think what I mean is it is incredible how things you take for granted can change.
To preface things, here's a little preface:
Back in the 1980's when my Mum could no longer face the prospect of another Winter in our old cottage she decided to move, and to that end, looked at roughly the part of the country she would like to live in, stuck a pin in a map and ended up in rural Lincolnshire. The facts behind this were simple: I wasn't living at home any more and she felt isolated.
I distinctly remember phoning her one weekend in the Winter of about 1983 and her telling me the following tale (which I've added explanatory bits to):
Our cottage had two bedrooms, and a floored loft. The loft was uninsulated, and was only used as a sleeping place in emergencies. Downstairs, her room was at one side of the house and my old room was at the other. Mine was next to the kitchen and the boiler and had an airing cupboard; it was also less than half the size of hers and was relatively cosy. Anyway, during a particularly bad Winter's storm, she had decided to sleep in my room (and who could blame her) because it was so warm.
She'd awoken late, due to the fact that the gale force winds had been going all night. It was incredibly quiet, she said. Now I immediately put this down to the fact that she was losing her hearing, but no, when I describe what had happened you'll understand. She said she wandered through to the kitchen to make herself a pot of tea and to coax the boiler (multi-fuel) back into life. She went through to the bathroom to ablute and again wondered why everything was so quiet. She was taken aback by the white light coming through the frosted bathroom window. She then went into her room and got dressed. Her room had a window facing West, whereas mine was East facing. She drew her curtains and looked at the fair amount of snow which had fallen and steeled herelf for another difficult day in the wilds. She then went back through to the kitchen, drew the curtains and was taken aback by the fact that there was half a snowdrift slanting across it. She then went into my old room, drew the curtains and discovered that the entire window was obscured by snow. The way this transpired is that a heavy Easterly had whipped in, blasting snow to a drift height of roughly fourteen feet against the side of the house!
She was astonished and not a little bit worried (she was in her late 60's). I must admit such a prospect would be a bit of a worry to me too, and I am fairly self-sufficient, but there she was, an older woman, alone, snowed-in and in the middle of nowhere in real terms.
Her neighbours would have been in a similar situation, so what could she do, except phone around and wait it out. She did manage to climb out of a living room window and went and took some pictures (sadly I don't have them) and that is how she discovered the depth of the drift.
So that was it really - the beginning of the end.
The sense of isolation must have been just about complete for her, and if there's one thing I would say about Mum - she was gregarious. Her life had narrowed dramatically as she got older, from having a husband and three children at home and friends and family coming and going from our old council house in Northolt, to a situation where her husband was dead and her last child (me) had fled the nest, leaving her in a beautiful old cottage at the bottom of a hill next to the A74, with a bus to Lockerbie or Moffat a couple of times a day. It was impossible to get her wee yellow DAF car up to the road in such weather, so she was stuck, and that was the breaking point I think.
Though I hated it when she moved (the sense of bereavement for me was as complete as losing my Dad) I can fully understand why. But I'll still remember the tears in my eyes and lump in my throat as we drove off down the road to get me on the train at Lockerbie for the last time.
That was it.
Life was changed forever for her, and it was also it with Dumfriesshire and me for roughly 8 or 9 years until I learned to drive.
I left it really late to learn to drive after a traumatic writing-off of the front wing of my brother's Ford back in 1979 - it put me off big time. However learning enabled me to visit - not just my Mum (me and my wife making epic eight hour journeys in our old Polo and the Volvo that replaced it down to Lincolnshire in the dead of the night when the roads were quiet) but also my Aunty Jane who was still living in Beattock.
When Jane moved into a care home in Moffat I still continued to visit the area, but strangely apart had little curiosity about my old home - maybe because it was lost to me.
Anyway, it was around this time (mid-90's) that the powers that be decided that the major upgrade of the A74 that had been through planning stages in the early 90's was to go ahead for the Abingdon to Lockerbie stretch.
And what did that mean exactly?
Well, to put it bluntly
A 6 lane motorway was going to be plonked straight down on my childhood.
This galvanized my feelings. As far as I could tell from those early internet days of dial-up and non-instantaneous information, there would be nothing left of Orchard - not the farm nor the farm workers cottages (of which ours was one).
I was distraught, I mean building a motorway is one thing, but annihilating your memories was quite another!
I made a trip to visit Jane but went on the road to Orchard before I visited her.
I found work well under way.
Mr & Mrs Fraser's lovely old farm, with its outbuildings and feral cats and fruit bushes and quiet decrepitude, was now a scene from WWI. There were trenches and markers; massive, deeply rutted tracks with oily puddles. There were diggers and tar and concrete. Their farmhouse, which they had rented from Annandale Estates for decades was gone, not even the foundations remained. The wells which sprang naturally from the ground around there were crushed and blocked. The building skills of the people who constructed the farm back in the late 18th/early 19th Century were trampled under the grinding caterpillar tracks of modernity. Even the ghostly barks of Wullie Fraser's long dead sheepdogs (Glen and Lass) were lost in the clatter of diesel engines.
Our other neighbours cottage was also gone. It had been modernised at the start of the 1980's at some considerable expense. Time and effort and love had been lavished on it, but for naught.
Of our cottage, very little was visible over the dense tree growth and bushes which had sprung up around it . . but, and it was a big one . . at least it was still there.
I was aghast.
I somehow managed to park in a layby and walk back to the road end and stumble down the old track. The grounding for the motorway's lanes bisected the track and was marked out right over the now levelled famrhouse and farmyard and cottage gardens - it was truly terrible.
It was a Sunday morning and fortunately for me, the few workmen there, were scattered at various tasks on the site, concentrating on levelling and machines and digging, which made it easy for me to serruptitiously nip over the mud and tracks, hop over a fence and approach the huddled remains of my old home.
And now I jump into the land of supposition.
I think the compulsory purchase order must have occured a few years before, because truly, for a building to fall into the state of disrepair our cottage had fallen into, must have taken a while.
Having all the roofing tiles stolen hadn't helped. And it wasn't much different inside. The place had been boarded up and broken into - everything and I mean everything had been robbed out. Ceramics, pipes, electrical wiring, floorboards, any fittings on walls, the hot water tank, loft ladder . . . you name it . . all gone.
I've often wondered how the people who bought Mum's cottage off her felt when they had it compulsory purchased off them a few years later and then robbed like a grave . .
They lived locally, so must have at some point passed it. Personally, had I known, I almost feel I would have stood vigilant. But I was 150 miles to the North and working - it wasn't possible . . and it would also have seemed a trifle mad . . . especially seeing as the council had compulsory purchased it and for all intents and purposes it was due to be levelled.
With the tiles gone from the roof, the rains of Upper Annandale had done their worst.
Inside, every surface which was capable of harbouring mould and fungus, did. The place exhaled billions of spores in a heavy wind of decay which I smelled well before the enormity of its devestation struck me.
The garden, which my Mum and Dad and myself had laboured to wrest from nature's grip, had reverted back to it's natural form . . wild. Damson's and blackthorn, grass and brambles, all fought to gain a place on the ground.
Strangely my Dad's old garage which he had assembled himself, still survived, but the doors looked like a passing giant had decided to wrench them off for a laugh and had kicked the windows in too at the same time.
The porch my Dad built had had its roof removed by the giant who had thrown it aside like cast-off Lego.
The concrete foundings of the porch were still there, as were the walls, but without a roof or door, the windows and their frames had gone.
It was frightening to see somewhere I knew and loved so well in such a state.
I hesitated by the front door where the plywood, which had been nailed to bar entry, had been torn asunder and the glazed door kicked in.
What on earth was I going to find?
Tramps using it?
Wild animals?
Drugs paraphernalia?
There was a feral, deep, earthy smell all around and judging by the amount of excrement by the entrance I can only assume a fox had been using it.
Picking up my courage I entered.
Thinking back now, it was like a veil of time parted and yet surrounded me.
I could see the now, but the past was deeply imprinted.
I could have found my way around in there had it been pitch black to be honest (even with the extra extension the new [old] owners had built) it was like I had only stepped out in the morning for a jaunt and returned at lunch to find devestation.
Every step I took was a step in my past:
There were evenings of happy talk and laughter with Trevor and Olive.
There were lunches with Jane, and an all too brief two Christmas's my Mum and I had with Dad at the cottage after we moved there, but before he died.
There was the heat of the Summer and there were whole days spent indoors in the long, misty Autumns, reading and listening to music.
There was the smell of my Mum's cooking and the sound of her shout as a capon and all the trimmings slid from her hands onto the kitchen lino of a Christmas morning.
There was our wonderful cat, Cookie, doing her best to keep the mice at bay.
There were endless fishing expeditions and walks at twilight.
Holidays with my friend Steve staying with us and all the joking we got up to.
All of it embued into the falling plasterwork and rotting wallpaper.
I stood in the hall, too stunned to cry, got out the only camera I owned at the time (an Olympus MjU Mk I) and went into the living room and took a photo. I did the same for all rooms in the house except the kitchen, the bathroom and the hall, for though I wanted to linger, to finger over the decay, I was desperate to get out too.
There were angry ghosts there - spirits of all those who had lived and died in the cottage's nearly 200-odd years history. They wanted answers to the same questions  as me and I couldn't help them.
I also had the feeling that the roadworks had dislodged spirits from the farm and the other buildings, and they (unable to find rest now the unthinkable removal of their hearths had happened) were crowding into our cottage, making it noisome and restless, and overwhelmingly melancholy.
Does that sound fanciful? 
Well not to me.
I've written about such things before, and you can pick up a sense of these things if you get yourself in the right frame of mind.
My father had died in that house, on a bright and sunny June afternoon, and when the Doctor had been to confirm his death, the pennies that had been placed over his eyes shone in the late sun that came in through their bedroom window.
How many other Fathers and Mothers, Brothers, Sisters and Children had died within those walls?
Things like that seep into the soul of a building.

Happy Times - Mum & I - Summer 1976
Western Elevation of our home.
Taken by my Dad with the family Instamatic on Ektachrome.

Sad Times
Western Elevation of our home - post devestation.
The chimney was a later addition.

Echoes of Teenage Dreams
The head of my bed resided in that corner.
I could sit on the window ledge and watch the stars and dream.

A Sad Farewell To Happy Gatherings
This was our living room.

The Death Of Happiness
This was my Mum and Dad's bedroom.
My Dad died here.

Happy Times 1975
Left to Right:
A friend of my Mum. Mum. Me. Steve. Steve's Uncle Bill. Steve's Aunty Lillian.
Our Home - Southern and Eastern Elevation

Total Devastation.
Eastern and Southern Elevation, post-apocalypse.
The part at the front was a latter extension to the kitchen.

I suppose, looking at the above you can see why I have written this. Such things have a deep power to affect one.
Sacriligious is a term that gets bandied about in regard to a lot of things, especially religious things, but, being a 21st Century Caveman, the thing I find sacriligious today is the lack of regard for one's ancestors.
Hearth (the feeling of oneness with the land and one's place in the world . . home if you like) is a vital constituent of society, which, because of the ease of social mobility, has all but been eroded.
Face it, how many people do you know, who still live in the same place they were born?
Very few indeed.
I think you can draw a lot of comparisons with the way society is today, and this rootlessness.
Modern folk are lost.
Shopping and endless gossip are the new religions.
People search so hard for something, anything, to find some purpose for their place within the great cosmic pantheon.
It used to be religion (you know, Church on Sunday and all that . .) but how many people do you know who still go to Church? Are they not more likely to be found of a Sunday worshipping at the Church of Matalan, or confessing their sins via Twitter.
Sunday church and regular worship were, I feel, a subsitute for the mass-migrations within Britain caused by the move from agrarian to mechanical society.
Roots are vastly important - they nourish the soul, but I didn't know I had roots until I set them down at our cottage when I was small, and then they were uprooted when Mum moved, and my soul, though content and deeply delighted with having my family and the happy family life we live, still yearns (in what I think is some form of melancholic longing for my dead parents) to be back there again, setting deep roots in that dark loam that comes with a sense of belonging to a place.
For the spirit of the place is still within me, like a drift-seed on an ocean current, waiting for land again; and the land is waiting for the seed to arrive so that it may spring anew with life.
Anyway, I am digressing.
The road workers and planners had committed a sacreligious act against me and nearly everything I held dear. In much the same way, I had done the same thing to myself in moving away to college . .
The ghosts wanted answers, and I wanted answers too, but above all else I wanted revenge on the robbers of my house, the thieves who had stripped out the old slates and all the fittings. Modern day graverobbers with no thought other than profit. Before we bought the cottage in the mid-'60's, it had been empty for approximately 15 years, but the roof and windows were intact, and no one had bothered to rob it. It even had its outside toilet and tramped  earthen floor! It had managed to survive, which is quite a testimony to the builders, but remove a roof and you have a different prospect altogether.
But that was Scotland then - mid 1960's. And the robbed fittings are a symptom of the awful world we live in now. And that isn't rose-tinted spectacle talk either.
Anyway, back to my adventure in my old home.
The thick, cloying smell of decay was getting to me.
It wasn't healthy.
Lingering slightly longer in the hall (and thinking I would never see my old home again) I looked up and saw something I hadn't expected to see.
The crucks - part of the original construction of the house had been exposed by where the original lime plaster had fallen away. 
They were surprising and shocking, like up-ended wishbones.
I had no idea those oak bones were there, and unfortunately I neglected to take a photograph of them, but you can get an idea of how the cottage might have originally looked by going to this site:
Our place I think was a little later and had been tickled-up over the years, but apart from the lack of thatch, externally, was initially very similar.
So there I was, like a man, on a beach of sadness, amidst the bones of the beached whale of memory. Sadness filled my soul from top to bottom. My shock was complete and overwhelming.
I breathed deeply of the spores and decay and went outside.
In the garden, the sun had started to break through and sadly I bade farewell to my home.
I decided to head down to my old stomping ground of the river bank.
As I have stated before, this wonderful oasis of undergrowth and wildlife and water was pretty much my own personal playground for most of my early life, from the age of 7 to the age of 19. It was heaven to me, in all weathers and at all times of year. A place of solace and learning, of exercise and leisure. In a word: Heaven.
The pathways which had been fairly decent when I lived there, were now overcome with wildness, but strangely still visible. I immersed myself in green wholesomeness as I decended the steep bank, and, breaking through a stand of young birch saplings, came out into the open and the running water.
How good did it feel to be home again?
Friends I cannot tell you, but like that perfect crescendo at the end of a symphony, the sun broke through and I found myself bathed in rich, life-giving, soul-enriching sunlight.
Rivers are always changing, but also, they rarely change. They find their courses and unless intervened with tend to wander along the same old paths to the sea. Yes they can rage, and yes they can become as timid as lambs under a Summer's sky, but for all that, the flow is ever constant and the life along them strives to move always onward, they remain the same.
My river was the same, I instantaneously knew that it knew me too.
Again, fanciful?
We knew each other, and we respected each other, and it was good to greet an old friend again.
The heat of the sun was bringing the wet vegetation to life and the air was filled with a delicious moistness. Sweet wild grasses and flowers scented the air - it was like a bridal procession for a faery Queen.
I walked a bit along the bank, picked a suitably not too damp place and sat down, immersing myself in humidity and sunshine, peace and the strong voice of the river.
I opened my rucsack, unscrewed my flask and enjoyed the finest cup of coffee I have ever tasted.
My spirit was hungry for the feel of the place and I sat, meditatively, the way I used to, and absorbed as much as I could.
It overwhelmed my senses, and I felt drowsy, emotional, and blissfully embraced by the earth spirit.
And then I got up and spent a happy hour wandering around, discovering new flotsam and old jetsam. I walked my boyish paths, watched fish, listened to the river's song, and was only moved from my reverie by the knowledge that I had to go and visit Jane and then head all the way back home.
As I've paraphrased Hericlitus before:
no man can step in the same river twice, because it isn't the same river and he isn't the same man . .
but you know what, I'll add a Ray Bradburyesque caveat to that:
A boy and a river, once joined, cannot be parted.
So where does this all end then . . I'll bet you're asking yourself that if you have indeed made it thus far . .
Well, a year or so later, I went to visit Jane again and decided that I would take a wander along my riverbank again. I drove along the M74 convinced that I wouldn't even be able to imagine where my home had been. I thought maybe I could get some idea of the lie of the land from certain trees and hills I knew well, but I thought it would be hard, especially at speed.
Well, I was to say the least astonished, when, keyed up to see if my spacial senses were working properly, I came over a rise in the road and spotted the familiar rear wall of our home. I slowed, I got tooted, I was downright dangerous, but no, there it was!
Coming off the motorway at the next junction and heading back the way via a side road, I managed to park up, crossed underneath the motorway on a farm underpass and headed back on foot.
No dereliction. The house had a roof, had been repainted and even had two children playing in the garden.
Was I happy? I was in tears. It was a total shock. I (strangely for me) resisted the urge to go and ask the owners how they had managed to do it, and how they could live so close to a major road. I guess I was just happy.
They have a far larger garden than we did and a new embankment must shelter them from some of the noise. It must be difficult to get there in the Winter, but I like to think that maybe, just maybe, the place got to them too and they feel that the effort of living there is like nothing compared to the satisfaction.

The Proof Of The Pudding

And here's some FB photography.
It was made on my old Olympus MjU Mk I.

© Phil Rogers 2013
A boy and a river, once joined, cannot be parted.

No tripod was employed and the stitching you see above is done from scans of prints. Yes it is crude, but I was going to actually mount them, so doing it electronically, though not ideal, saved the destruction of the prints . .
I do have the negatives so maybe one day when I get a chance, I'll do it properly, but it will have to suffice for now.
I like it though.
It will maybe give you an idea of how lucky I was to have had such a place as a playground.
And that is it - some more of me . . we'll be getting to know each other quite well, you and I!
As usual, take care, God Bless and thanks for reading.

Friday, March 08, 2013

The Ralph Gibson Experiment (Part Two)

Phew, shipmates.
That's all I can say to you . . Phew!
The weather this week has been, to tell the truth, worse than a hold full o' Space Hoppers.
Oh yes, we've been powerful affected by wind, and plenty of it. And what does wind cause? Waves, and not just small ones neither.
Give the wind half a chance and it'll whip up 200 nautical miles o' ocean into something resembling a party of drunken intruders on a cosy evening in.
Now we's used to that, why wouldn't we be? but it does bring with it problems.
Yes we have supplies, and yus, most times the only things to do are to stow the sails and wait it out, but there's one problem they'll never show 'ee on Pirates Of The Caribbean . . . excrement.
Most times in good weather you can sit yourself at the stern and drop till your heart's content and no one'll disturb ye, or just whip off a quick tinkle and back to work.
But in a storm, all there is is the bucket.
And it's no man's favourite job to take that bucket a'deck and chuck it over the side, especially when the wind is coming at you at 40 knots, but it's a job that has to be done. 
I'll tell 'ee shipmates, it's no joke having ten men's droppings blasting back at ye in the teeth o' a gale.
But there, that's life on the ocean wave.
It's bad for old Mog too.
Cats is private creatures.
Watch a cat doing it's business and it'll not really trust ye again.
Normally he'll hop onto the rear rail and drop and spray like any man.
"Kathmandu!" comes the cry and we's leaves him alone, but tisn't safe for a cat on the rear rail in a storm, so he'll head to the bilge pretending he's looking for anything that'll provide a couple o'hours o'fun and we leave's him alone to do his business.
But this week he seemed different.
Like I say we were laid up with that wind and sea, but Mog looked damned assured of himself.
He kept mighty clean, and swaggered around the shop, no skulking, just cleanliness and spit an' polish.
In a word, he was up to something.
Now I abide honesty more than any man-jack alive and when I think something's up, I'll come right out and ask. So I did.
"Mog," I said, "you're up to summat, old friend!"
Now Mog, being a cat, obviously can't speak, but we've been around enough together to know what each of us is saying.
That cat had been peeing somewhere, call it a Cap'n's Sixth Sense. Call it a Keen Hooter, but amongst all the familiar smells of a ship with the hatches battened down, there was not one single whiff o' cat's pish.
Mog looked at me, in that sly way he has sometimes, and strolled off in the direction of Sheephouse's cabins.
(Sheephouse was up above, lashed to a mast with a decent length o'rope to stop him falling overboard and was chucking his interiors into the teeth o' the storm.)
Mog nosed open the door o' Sheephouse's darkroom, jumped up onto a worktop and used his rear to push a bottle forward.
I unscrewed the lid, and took a look. The liquid was a dark reddy-brown, and fairly concentrated looking. I took a look at the bottle again, and larfed. 
Oh how I larfed, my sides split. 
Even Mog was larfing too . . . .



I know, I know . . you have been pacing the floors, not sleeping, off your food. Your libido has vanished entirely. The washing-up hasn't been done. Your wife is checking your smartphone for evidence. Your skin has taken on a wan hue. You haven't made a photograph all week. What's wrong? What's wrong!
Nothing is wrong you big baby - worry no more, because Part Two of 'The Ralph Gibson Experiment' is back.
It's big, bold, brash, brave, chock-a-block with bonhomie, bravura and beans. Oh yes, never in the field of photographic experimentation has so much been done by so few for so many.
So hoist your trousers and put a Do Not Disturb sign on your brain, because when we are done, things will never be the same again. Indeed, the world may never be the same again, because we are treading new(ish) and unknown territory, where a monster lurks 'round every corner, and fortune favours the brave!
Of course, literal interpretations of the above are welcome, but then again, most people would consider you utterly mad, so take it all with a pinch of salt and just mutter "F'in Sheephouse" to yourself a few times. You'll get there. Just imagine what it is like for me -  I have to share the same brain with him . . .

Firstly I will preface all this for those of you expecting to see some photographs that look like Mr.Gibsons'. 
It isn't going to happen
Well, as I stated last week, this was purely an experiment to see whether his shooting and processing technique (as detailed in the book Darkroom) would work for me. That is the be-all and end-all. I couldn't emulate him and I have no wish too.

Last week I set you up with a feast of information, and this week, guess what? yep - it's info overload. It will all be needed to be digested, however it is easy, and especially so, if I distill last week's post down to a paragraph.
Would you like that? Would you?
OK, seeing as I am feeling benevolent.

Kodak Tri-X, at mostly EI 400
Sunny day shooting regime: 1/250th of a second at f16
Shoot in bright sun on Tri-X with the camera set for f16
10cc of Rodinal for every film used.
Dilution of 1 + 25.
Temperature 68° Farenheit.
Agitation for 10 seconds every one-and-a-half minutes
Total development time 11 minutes.

How's that for the summation of a life's work and technique (apologies to Ralph - no disrespect meant) but at least if you read the above, it means you don't need to read last week's post . . what do you mean . . you couldn't be arsed reading it anyway?? Were I not of sound mind I might take umbrage at that . . however I am not so I won't. I generally like to think that if you have learned something, and it can be passed on, then one should out of human duty.
So, long-winded preamble out of the the way . . where was I?
Ah yes, basic reference meter readings taken, film loaded, pack-mule fed and burdened with Koni-Omega and sprightly spring in my step as I head off towards Ye Olde Hawkhill in search of some eye-candy.

Grossly romanticised Sheephouse, and we won't be having any of that around here you know. This is Britain.
You mean pleasant subject matter don't you?
(Official communication from The Ministry Of Britishness; dated 25th February 2013)

Well, yes, eye-candy isn't really a word that can be applied to the Hawkhill in Dundee - it is a bit of a 'non' area these days - all the interesting bits were demolished back in the 1960's and 1970s and it is now a rough collection of University buildings and low-lying industrial units.
Apparently, in 1954, the Hawkhill boasted 13 pubs, 2 wine merchants, 12 sweetie shops, 15 bakers, 21 grocers, 7 Scots/Italian chippies and 2 bicycle shops. Some 20 years later, it was almost reduced to rubble by redevelopment.
My lecturer and friend from college days, Mr.Joseph McKenzie, detailed the whole lot in an extraordinary photographic essay called Hawkhill, Death Of A Living Community. Sadly this hasn't been exhibited in years, which is a terrible shame. It is a an important statement on the corruption and frenzy from a black period of time in British Architectural Improvements.
Anyway, here's some pictures from the opposite end of the Hawkhill to where I would be starting, to illustrate the changes wrought.

Session Street is on the right

Session Street is still on the right, but where has the character gone?

Look at that. I honestly feel that if the wholesale mass crushing of Dundee's architecture hadn't happened, and the money had instead been spent on improving the older buildings rather than knocking them down, you'd have a city that could possibly be regarded as one of the world's architectural jewels. It still retained most of its medieaval street layouts well into the 20th Century.
Anyway, mostly gone now, and along the Hawkhill, one is overcome by, how shall we say, dullness. It does still have a couple of real olde-time pubs though .  .The Cambeltown Bar and The Hawkhill Tavern, but there used to be so much more. 
Anyway, enuff o' me shite . . onwards. 
(Oh, actually, if you are at all interested, photographically, we have the most incredible archive, made by a [ahem] Amateur photographer, Mr.Alexander Wilson and made between the 1870's and early 1900's. They capture a city that was a hub of Victorian Britain - famous for its 3 J's - Jute, Jam and Journalism, but also its lesser known industries of ship building and whaling. It was a place of extremes, from total poverty [found in backies in the likes of the Hawkhill and the Hilltown, to mansions on the upper reaches of the Perth Road and Millionaire's Mile on the East side of town - at one time containing the highest proportion of millionaires in Britain - pretty remarkable when you are talking about Victorian Britain!] Anyway, if you have a half an hour you can find the photographs here.)
Am I trying to take my time here . . well, no . . but I do enjoy a nice meander.
Anyway, here goes - I will warn in advance that my scanner, even scanning in Greyscale, has imparted a pinkish tinge to the following images. They're scans off the contact print, and they've been sharpened a tad and contrast has been adjusted a tad too.
For the full effect of Tri-X in Rodinal one merely has to go to the very last photograph of the crop of Sir Alan Sugar's face and bear in mind it was a hand-held photograph. I think you'll agree the performance is none too tardy.
Oh and I am going to shoehorn in a bit about meter readings here - as I stated earlier I took some average ones before I left the house. According to my Gossen meter the EV's (Exposure Values) ran from 13 to 16, which is fairly typical for round here, so based on the recommended box speed of Tri-X:
At EI 400, EV13 = 1/30th @ f16
At EI 400, EV16 = 1/250th @ f16
His recommendation is right at the top of my readings, so I adjusted by one stop to 1/125th @ f16 for every shot and hoped it would all work out.
Oh, and the text in calm blue is linked to appropriate pages should you be interested.
Right here goes folks - in a rather un-photographer-y way, I am now laying my heart and my embarassment on my sleeve, and showing you the full contact sheet (split up) - there's nowhere for me to hide. Most frames are terrible, but one is a keeper.



Right, Photo 1:
Well, I hit the Sinderins behind this bloke. He stopped right in front of me, and I hate that, so I backed up whilst he was texting, and snapped at him. I then realised that a Koni-Omega is not exactly a snapshot camera - it is surprisingly easy to use, but it isn't good for an instinctive shot. By the time you have lifted it to your face, the moment has gone, or, people think you are going to assault them - it is that big.
As big as a face actually.



Photo 2:
I turned up Peddie Street and headed towards the industrial units there - they are bleak and interesting and contain one of Dundee's greatest gems - Clark's All-Night Bakery.
Famously described as 'heart attack central', basically if you find yourself in need of tasty stodge at any hour of the day or night, it is the place to go.
Want attitude? You'll apparently get it, though we have only ever encountered friendliness.
More importantly, want Chips and Curry Sauce at 3AM on a Sunday morning? You'll get it.
This photo is of the roof of Clark's. I have made loads of this same scene over the years and still can't capture it.
And I wasn't successful this time either - soot and chalk in extremis.



Photo 3:
I headed back towards the Hawkhill, but wandered into Halley-Stevensons - a relatively unknown gem of Dundee. They're the oldest producer of waxed cotton fabrics in the world. So, I would say they supply Barbour etc . . quite something eh!
Situated in The Baltic Works, there are many photographic opportunities.
I was taken by this reflection, but here you see that a rangefinder isn't so good for closeups, because stuff intrudes into the frame but you don't realise until later. It is unclear on the contact, but on the negative the de-silvering of the mirror adds a strange edge to the reality.
Anyway, cropped I think it would work.



Photo 4:
Halley-Stevensons again . . but look at the vertical . . it's off, and thus renders this permanently annoying for me. Incredible detail though!



Photo 5:
Same place, but another dull photograph - again the detail is very good.



Photo 6:
Now this is the one I like the most. It is more me. I like this sort of carefully composed urban landscape detail.
It's at the sculpture entrance to Duncan Disorderly College Of Art.
I used to go there you know . . . and whilst it was a valuable education, despite the nice website, I'll quote Public Enemy again . . "Don't believe the hype".
Unless it has changed dramatically (it may well have; in fact it probably has) I found it to be a creative mincer. Bright optimism in, stifled creativity sausages out. But thinking about it, that was probably just olde curmudgeonly me.
My one solace from the shoehorning of ideas that was occuring in the Graphics Department, was Joseph McKenzie's oasis - the Photography Department.
Joe ran a wonderful ship, where creativity was encouraged. My only slight criticism, was that technicality wasn't emphasised. But that is just me. I like a bit of technical . .that's why I am writing this.
Back to DOJ though, Gerry Badger and Albert Watson went there too . . but as I say, those were the days when they had a photography department. These days it is called Time Based Art and Digital Film - click the link and it will take you there. Notice no mention made of photography! 
Hmmm . . . och well, all this criticism . . bang goes any chance of becoming a part-time lecturer in monochrome photography and traditional darkroom practice . . but onwards.
Anyway, to me this photograph works, however, it also shows me that the framelines on the Koni are possibly misaligned as I cropped it a lot closer than this.
On a positive note - look at the detail!



Photo 7:
Then it was round the back of the College and down the side, meanwhile these two dogs were barking at me, so I thought . . wait a minute, you can't do that, so I took their picture and stopped them barking.
That's true actually - the Koni stilled them into a stasis which was only broken when I moved away . . oh, the power of that camera, but then again, maybe they thought it was a large black piece of square meat . . .



Photo 8:
From there it was onto the Perth Road opposite Drouthys and head back to base.
Next up is Williams' Newsagent. This is an old-style traditional newsagent (fags, sweets and papers . . none of yer modern fripperies).
I wanted a to try a close-up of the shutters and so on, just to check the focus on the camera and the ability of the Super-Omegon lens.
No problems there . . just a slightly 'off' vertical which again is no good to me. I can correct in the darkroom should I wish to print such a dull photograph!



Photo 9:
Further along and as I approached this guy from the other direction I was so taken by his air of melancholy that I was desperate to just approach him and ask if I could take a picture of his sad face, but I didn't (coward) and moved past to stand and browse a shop window beyond him. From there it was terribly easy to guess focus, and point the Koni in his direction and snap. Hence the squintness. He still looks pretty sad, and I've never seen a single customer in his newly-opened mini-mart.



Photo 10:
And the last in line as it were. The couple approaching looked to me like something out of a Gary Winogrand picture, but, lacking his balls and talent I opted to make a photograph of them by holding the Koni at waist level and pretending to check it. Of course I guessed focus too. At the very last second the baldy guy staggered into my path out of Mennies.
It was literally as I was operating the shutter. Yes it is squint, yes it is shite, but it is amazing that you can use a camera the size of one and a half housebricks in the street like this!


There y'go - I've cropped it just to get an idea of what it would look like . . it has gone from squinty snap to instant threat (I think).
Anyway, surprised it was all over so quickly and operating the push/pull film advance mechanism on the Koni, I strode off, determined that I would process these the way Mr.Gibson would!
20 minutes later, film loaded in Paterson tank, all accoutrements beside me at the kitchen sink, I cousulted my notes:

10cc of Rodinal for every film used.
Dilution of 1 + 25.
Temperature 68° Farenheit.
Agitation for 10 seconds every one-and-a-half minutes
Total development time 11 minutes.

Ok, so seeing as I was using a large Paterson tank my ratios of developer to water were 19.23ml Rodinal + 480ml water. Everything else was the same as above. Agitation (the most under appreciated part of film developing) was a gentle 10 seconds (roughly 4 inversions) at 1 minute 30 second intervals, so Zero seconds, then 1 minute 30 seconds/3 minutes/4 minutes 30 seconds/ 6 /7:30 / 9 / 10:30, and then chuck the developer at 11 minutes.
I will also preface this with the fact that I always use a water bath pre-development. A lot of people don't, but I find it lends itself to more even developing, so that was 3 or 4 changes of water at 68° Farenheit with gentle agitation.
All was safely gathered in, processing went fine, drying went fine, and a contact was made and assessed.
One of the frames was without a doubt the clear winner, so I printed it.
I thought I would go the whole hog and 'do a Gibson', so I printed it at Grade 5!

I've Been Fired

I used Kentmere Fine Print VC Fibre paper, developer was my usual Kodak Polymax. It is actually a superb paper and even for the likes of a Grade 5 print, exposure times are very fast. The lens was the 100mm Vivitar VHE at f16, which is a great lens - amazing to think that a month ago it was sitting unloved in its box, growing fungus.
What can't be ascertained from the scan is the print's luminosity. That is something that is quite hard to define and achieve, but is definitely a by-product of negative density. You don't read that much, but the more I have printed the more I realise it to be so. It is a conclusion I originally saw expounded by the American photographer Steve Mulligan, and I agree with him.
This was the densest negative on the roll.
It is very much me.!
And just to show you how well the combination of film and developer work, here's a sectional enlargement. The above print is an 8x10". 
The section below means the print would stretch beyond the 24-odd inches of the DeVere's baseboard. That's a big print.

Sharpened slightly just to empahasise the grain,
which isn't nearly as huge as I was expecting.
The detail is surprising isn't it, especially when you consider I wasn't  using a tripod.

Were you under the impression that a strong solution of Rodinal was grainy? That is the received wisdom isn't it . . . 
Can I stretch to a Part 3 where I have used 35mm TMX 400?
It's possible actually, because I did so last weekend!
So where has this got me? Was it all pointless?
Well, no.
I might not have achieved the Über-Density of a Ralph Gibson negative, but I have achieved a tonality, in the finished print, which I am delighted with.
I have also been surprised, so much so that I intend to use up the Rodinal I have left - I am particularly looking forward to trying it with some TMX 100 5x4 film. I'll also use it in the future at varying dilutions like I used to. I know the agreed sensible route is to stick to one film and developer combo, but you know what, life's too short. It is fun swapping things around - it makes an interesting hobby even more interesting.
And that's it, as they say at the end of all the best cartoons "Tha-tha-tha-that's all folks!"
I hope you've enjoyed this - if you've got any queries feel free to use the comments box and I'll answer to the best of my ability.
As usual, take care, God bless and thanks for reading.
Oh and if you've read this far, you'll maybe not realise that there is a PART THREE - no one seems to have read it - you can find it HERE

Thanks Ralph!

Friday, March 01, 2013

The Ralph Gibson Experiment (Part One)

Mornin' varmints.
'Tis time to split the mizzen and rolic you're thunderjugs, because the old nut-brown meths is ready and waiting, and I'll stand a draught for every man-jack o'you that can bother yer arses to read the writing o' my friend and erstwhile passenger, Mr.H.Sheephouse.
I'll warn ye now - it's dull folks. Duller than a bilge full o' dullness.
However, if you read it, it will cheer him up and he is a man in need of some desperate ego-massage.
It might even make him happy.
And a happy passenger means a happy ship, that's what I always say.
Watch out for the nut-brown though - it'll run right through ye like a dose o'lava.
Mog learned that earlier in the week.


So there I was, twiddling my thrumbs and wondering what the hell I could write about, when all of a sudden, something hit me. You'll know by now that I have referred to those two great books Darkroom and Darkroom 2, now long out-of-print, on Ralph Gibson's Lustrum Press - they're great books, but (and this was the thing that hit me) they're also very detailed in the descriptions of each individual photographer's approach to film and wet printing.
Want to learn how the mighty Wynn Bullock approached things -  Darkroom  is the book! Eikoh Hosoe, Eugene Smith? They're all there. Even Mr.Gibson himself has a section . . . and you know what? I love Ralph Gibson's photographs.
Aside from being very singular images of an incredibly personalised approach to photographing the world, they are also (technically speaking) the epitomy of all the things the books say you should never do when processing. Heavy grain, underexposed shadow areas, over-developed highlights, dense dense dense negatives, uncropped. You name it the list goes on, and yet they have a lyrical intensity that is all too hard to find in these days of easy-fix digital photography. 
To me they speak truth, but a strange dream-like truth. 
I think it all comes from his vision. To paraphrase him "I carry my vision around with me wherever I go  . . " You can tell. A Gibson photograph stands out like a sore thumb.
And there in Darkroom  was his approach to the technical side of things writ large and detailed.
When I started scratching deeper (ok, reading the bloody article, harumph) I found that in actuality his 'technique' is incredibly simple:
Kodak Tri-X, exposed at ostensibly EI 400 (although he does list his speed ratings for Tri-X as 100 to 400 but I believe that maybe this is him referring to the varying light conditions he will encounter whilst using each film) - I say ostensibly because like all great photographers he is using the films latitude to deal with any exposure mistakes, and seeing as he says he has been using the film since 1961, who are we to argue with his experience. Obviously too (just in case you don't know it) modern Tr-X is a bit of a different film from the early 60's version, but as far as I can tell, he is still using it, so it can't be that different.
I know this also sounds like he is using 'Sunny 16' (expose the film at a shutter speed equivalent to the film's box speed [400 ASA for Tri-X] at f16 in sunlight), but at 1/250th he is roughly overexposing by a stop (Sunny 16 with Tri-X would be approx 1/500th at f16, there being no 1/400th setting on a camera), so basically he is letting the average light in the scene be exposed at a stop more than sunny 16, so roughly that'll be about Zone VI.
It's all very loosey-goosey isn't it!
As I read further I found myself getting excited - this was a glimpse into a photographer's technique, and it wasn't too technical or over the top. I wouldn't have minded technical actually, but this was a good starting place, especially if (and I'll use that word italicised and in bold and blue) I decided that I might follow other photographers methodologies in the interests of science . . if you know what I mean . . .
I will also state defiantly and definitely now, I have no wish to emulate Ralph's style  - not that I could anyway, but you know there's these guys who use GPS to set their tripods in the same ghostly tripod holes that Ansel Adams' and Edward Weston's tripods were placed in? You don't know about them? Gosh. Well it is true, and it is the antithesis of photography as self-expression (which it is).
So, in much the same way, I have no interest in emulating someone else, it is more that I am very curious about his working methods.
Anyway, back to Ralph - in Darkroom, he states that his sunny day shooting regime is
"1/250th of a second at f16"
"Because I almost always shoot in bright sun on Tri-X with the camera set for f16, there's a uniformity to my negatives."
Now this is a very important statement and it intrigued me.
I have never in my life left my camera at a set aperture, have you?
Everyone loves a twiddle and choosing the correct aperture for the photograph is part and parcel of making photographs . . isn't it?
Isn't it?????

Well the proof of the pudding and all that - do these all look uniform? I guess they do . . .
Also, all except the third one of the car exhibit his stylistic trait of using broad areas of shadow. I like this - it makes the photograph breath and live, as opposed to being just a nicely toned grey. In other words it brings a dramatic effect to the photograph, so that it becomes a visual statement rather than just a direct record of a scene/incident.
I mean, look at this:

The Visitor

It's a fairly typical example of my searching for something - the greys are excellent, and though I like them, the photograph lacks any dramatic impact whatsoever
The camera was my now long-gone Pentax 6x7 using the 75mm lens. Film was Ilford's beautiful FP4+ at EI 64 and I developed it in Barry Thornton's 2-bath developer . . nice combo? You bet, but it could have been so much more.
Anyway, back to Mr.Gibson and his permanent f16.
I looked at some of his photographs and given how great I find a lot of his photographs, I couldn't understand how it could work. Of course, depth of field is all relative, shortening as you are focusing closer and lengthening as you head out towards infinity, however it is still a very intriguing concept, which, you would think (well I did think) would free one up to concentrate on making pictures and composition rather than the niceties of getting a good negative.
I have always strived to get the best negative I can, and yet if I could produce photographs like those in 'The Somnambulist' (Gibson's great photo essay) I would be a happy bunny.
The other thing he mentions in Darkroom is that he always uses Rodinal, the great developer made for donkey's years by Agfa, and now, not made by them and called R09 (yet it is still the same). 
Rodinal can be tricky - it can give you hellishly dense negatives, and yet it is also wonderfully adaptable. Gibson's use of Rodinal is at the mega-concentrated dilution of 1:25. Now that is strong and certainly stronger than I have ever used it. I always used 1:50 or 1:100, but I stopped using Rodinal a while back when I thought a little journey into the world of homebrew developers would be interesting.
Actually, I started off my home-developing with Rodinal and in fact have the same 500ml bottle I started with . . now over 10 years old and half-full, so that gives you an idea of its longevity. 
It hasn't been pampered at all, just left stored in a half-full bottle for quite a while. I know it worked last time I used it about a year ago, and given what I have read I didn't doubt it would serve me well this time. 
The thing about Rodinal is that it is a superb acutance developer. Yes grain is generally heavier than most people want, but this can be varied by dilution. What it does do, is make the grain very hard-edged thus giving the appearance of detail. It can also be very contrasty and this, coupled with the crisper grain, give the impression of a developer which is a universal panacea. Start enlarging though and you find the grain can be intrusive, especially on 35mm, but I guess it all depends if you like grain in the first place. Different strokes and all that.
For myself, having spent years trying to achieve grainless, seamlessly graduated grey tones in negatives (HP5+ in 1:3 Perceptol being the clear winner of any combo) this little experiment has made me think fceck it, why not give it a go!.
So back to Mr.Gibson. He states that his development regime is:

10cc of Rodinal for every film used.
Dilution of 1 + 25.
Temperature 68 Farenheit.
Agitation for 10 seconds every one-and-a-half minutes
Total development time 11 minutes.

This seems to be the same for every film he develops, which again is quite strange. Which again makes me think that the statement about EI's 100 to 400 is based upon a frame to frame basis rather than per film if you know what I mean.
Anyway, excited and inspired, I armed myself with all this information and thought I should try his method of working and see what happened. 
Oh the lengths I go to for you FB readers - had you not been around (like a pixie on my back) then I probably wouldn't have bothered, but there you go. Before I start to detail things I'll say thank you very much for getting me out and about on a very enjoyable adventure.
The more I thought about doing this, the more excited I became. It all seemed rather too easy! Don't change shutter speed or aperture, just focus, or even use hyperfocal focusing, take aim and fire! How liberating.
Then things hit home with a crash. I did have Rodinal, no problems there. I did also have Tri-X, but that was the problem. I didn't have any 35mm Tri-X, only 120 size. I do have some TMY 400 and also Delta 400, but I specifically wanted to follow his instructions for developing and only the Tri-X/Rodinal combo would do . . so the Leica M2 was oot as it were.
But I did still have a rangefinder (Mr.Gibson is a confirmed Leica rangefinder user just in case you were wondering).
My rangefinder was in the disguise of the heavyweight beast from the blackest pit of the 1970's . . Yes, a Koni-Omega Rapid 100!
It's big and unwieldy, but I rather like it.

OK - so this is a Rapid M (the earlier model) but for all intents and purposes it's the same camera . . except mine doesn't have the flash unit . . .
It does have the horns though!

Being a 6x7cm camera, it was only going to give me ten frames from a 120 film, but that should be enough to test things out.
(You are probably sitting there at your breakfast table, rubbing your beard and sagely saying to your partner "This is one seriously flawed experiment!" well it would be were I trying to emulate his visual style, but I am not trying to do that am I . . . I am merely trying to emulate his processing style . . .)
So, back to Der Schnoogle as they have been know to say in Hamburg . . .
The only problem I could forsee was the "1/250th at f16" thing.
A brief aside: depth of field on Medium and Large format camera lenses is less than on a 35mm camera - it's all to do with design, circles of confusion, spacing and format size. I shan't go into it, but suffice to say that f16 on a 35mm camera gives you roughly an extra foot of depth of field on average, so if I was going to use f16 on the Koni, then my focusing would have to be fairly spot on. I could have stopped the Koni down to f22, which would be fine were I using a tripod or a monopod, but I wasn't going to be. f22 would have meant that my shutter speed would have been roughly 1/60th of a second, and when you are using a camera of that size, you are bringing in the extreme risk of camera shake showing up, so it was going to have to be f16.
I was also going to have to use 1/125th of a second instead of the recommended 1/250th. The reason? This is Scotland - we seldom get bright sunny days and I didn't want to underexpose my negatives (and indeed the day of my outing proved to be a tad overcast) so 1/125th it was.
So, film loaded, sturdy shoes on, pack-mule (for carrying the Koni) fed, brain in gear, and I was ready to go.
Before I went out I took a few readings of average scenes with my Gossen Lunasix 3S, just to see how things compared with Mr.Gibson's standard settings. The EV's (Exposure Values) ran between 13 and 19, so fairly normal for round here. I also thought it beneficial to take some paper to make notes of what the actual readings were after I took each picture at the 1/125th + f16 settings.
This is all sounding a tad bizarre isn't it, but you'd be amazed at what you can learn from reading your notes - indeed being as thorough as you can be is a great aid. I have paraphrased him many times before, but the genius jazz guitarist Joe Pass once said something along the lines of "Learn it all and then forget it all", meaning (I've always assumed) that technique can set you free!
Back to my notes things . . . I was also going to establish what Zone an average reading from the scene fell on, so I could see how things worked. It would be nothing extreme:
Zone V is average grey.
Zone IV is one stop under-exposed (slightly dark shadows)
Zone VI is one stop over-exposed (caucasian skin and concrete!)
I couldn't really forsee things going much beyond this.
And there my friends I am going to leave it till next week.
Why not.
It would be too long an article for one week plus it means I can do this at a more leisurely pace. I hope you don't mind.
I could give you a taster of the results, but then I would have to kill you, so I won't. Don't get too excited though - the photographs are dire, however the processing is interesting . . . stay tuned film-fans . . .
As usual, take care, thanks for reading and God bless.