Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Fresh Faces, Broken Dreams And Hope

If you live in Dundee, you can't miss it - the signs are everywhere, however if you are outwith the town, then:
'Here Ye! Here Ye!"
For it is time for that ragbag of hope, dreams, talent and waffle; of concerned artists and total art-speak psueds . .
Yes folks it is none other than time for Duncan Of Jordanstone College Of Art's Annual Degree Show!

Drunk N'Disorderly was where I was 'educated' in all things arty and whilst I came to loath handling pencils and gouache, I actually think that now I received a really solid education. So, I thought well, I effectively self-publish FB, why not do a nice thing and promote it.
Because, strangely, despite a working life not spent being an artist, here I am, 30 years down the line from that fresh-faced fellow, still creative, still making images, and definitely more of a concerned 'artist' (alright you regular F'ers, you can take the imagined 'piss-' off the front of that) than I have ever been.

I left college in the mid-80's, with a degree in one hand and the wish to become a fine art photographic printer in my heart - I knew I could do it, but unfortunately this was the end-time -  Thatcher's Britain of the '80's and I didn't have a bike - so whilst I was enthused, there was simply no employment for work like that in a tiny little place called Dundee, let alone in a a seemingly tinier place called Scotland . . nope it was London or nothing.
Not having the wherewithall, gumption, the aforementioned bike and especially funds to head to t'Smoke, I hunkered down, set up camp and ended up drifting into music retail . . and (incredibly to me) that's what I still do.
So those were my dreams broken-up like so many stale biscuits and swept under the carpet of evil reality.
OK, stop sobbing at the back.
There's no need, because with the wisdom of age, I am now of the opinion
Was it such a bad thing?
Typically me, it is a perverse thought. However when I really think about it, I think that the disillusion and pounding contact with reality was actually a boon.
What's that at the back?
Well (backed by I triumphal trumpet refrain) I can relate a story of triumph!
I am my own man, of independent finances, so I can commit my time (the most valuable commodity in the world) whenever I feel like it.
I can print whatever and whenever I want to - there are no deadlines, no angry customers, no rent, no worries of financial downturns, none of the normal distractions to creativity.
I can do what I want, when I want to.
I have my own darkroom - it's a mess, but it is MINE. It contains my 2 enlargers, 5 lenses and decent supply of paper, chemicals and negatives.
I can have fun and pleasure in the dark (stop sniggering) and emerge with results I am happy with.
Yes of course it's selfish, but it is my selfish.

But let's rewind for sec,
to a time of tight trousers, big hair, angular guitars and pints of snakebite . . .
After College, my dreams languished in the doldrums . . it was a total pisser, but what could one do? So, in a light-bulb moment, I totally put photography aside in favour of trying my darndest to play the guitar at a (hoped for) semi-pro level . . .
Oh the laughter . .
I did try though, really really really hard, practising for hours and days and months on my own initially, and then with my bandmates Mr.Charles Black Esq, and Sir Donald of The Currie . . or just plain, Chic n' Currie (geddit?) for short.
We had fun, we made monstrous noises, we deafened ourselves permanently.
We spent the equivalent of the GDP of a small African nation on gear!
But it was for naught.
The ghastly efforts can be heard here but please be warned - it isn't easy listening - it's also rather embarassing, however though you will have heard better, you've probably heard worse too . . .

And then in 1991 something truly significant happened to me - I met my wife, Alison.
I know that people poo-poo the 'it was meant to be' thing, but honest, it was.
We hit it off like a mouse and cheese, and it was this total realisation that there really was something more to life than practising the guitar, that led me to shut up my guitar cases pretty much for good . . . there was just simply so much more in the world than 6 strings and a plank of wood.
After a semi-legendary gig at Dundee Uni, Chic n' Currie (and Dr. Steve Gurling - our 'newish' singer) and me sort of felt like salmon in the upstream moments of life, and our little band fizzled out like a fizzly-out thing. We'd rocked, we'd created and someone (one person) had danced . . that was enough for us and we rode off into the sunset leaving behind altered minds and a changed musical reality.
We're still friends though (though no Gurley . . where are you?) and drink and laugh together on semi-regular nights out,  so all was not lost

In the meantime, Alison and I made a life together.
We did up an incredibly ramshackle flat, had a child (Alec Turnips . . just search the blog . . he's there), loved, laughed, talked, drank wine, got enthused, moved into another house no one else wanted, did it up slowly, laughed more, got even more enthused, drank more wine and generally LIVED.
And I was still a creative creature.
I might have been up to my eyes in 14 foot drops of lining paper, with a paintbrush behind my ear and a curse on my lips, but the olde creative rumblings continued.
I initially diverted them (by accident) into short story writing . . which, whilst I enjoyed it, wasn't really enough. I didn't think much of them to be honest, they were alright, but . . . and then one day, as often happens, out of nowhere during a conversation with my brother this statement came out:
"You used to be good at photography Phil - you could have done something with it."
A massive light bulb exploded in my head - of course!
The thing I used to love.
The thing I still did badly on holiday with an original Olympus MjU, the results being processed by TruPrint (! - honest).
As if by coincidence, at the same time, my pension provider went belly-up.
I had some money in the bank which was aside for my pension . . I spoke to Alison and in typical fashion she said 'Go For It.', so I did.
A couple of weeks later, there I was with a 1960's Rolleiflex T, a Gossen Lunasix S and a roll of Neopan 400! Ready to rumble.

Now incredible as it may seem for someone who had studied photography, I was incredibly nervous, both in using that first film and in processing it . . so after I'd used up all 12 exposures, what did I do? Yep - I outsourced it to a local processing company, for the grand charge of £5 (this was about 2002 - that was a lot of money) and I didn't even get a contact print. The film was pretty poor actually, but I could see the potential, and became determined to do it myself. This I am afraid folks has given way to the process monster who writes for you these days. No step too fearsome! No film/developer combo too daunting!!
Fortunately I still had my Paterson tank from College days and also had a larger Paterson which I had bought for the grand sum of £2 at a car boot sale.
I quick visit to Jessops bought me a bottle of Rodinal, Bromophen, Ilfostop, Hypam and Ilfotol, 3 8x10 trays, and 25 sheets of Jessops RC - I was good to go.
Now of course all I needed was an enlarger . . however, because of our financial impunity that wasn't to happen for another 2 years!

Can you imagine- all these 120 films and only contact prints? I tried contact printing 6x6cm negs on 6x7 paper for a while, but again, not a great idea at the time!
I learned to be a bed-fellow with frustration - I've been used to scrimping and saving all my life, but man, that wait for an enlarger was super-frustrating.
The enlarger (a Meopta Magnifax) arrived the day of our 10th wedding anniversary - and it was nirvana, happier than a pig in you know what as I flexed my muscles in trying to carry the massive box somewhere I could assemble the contents.
I coupled this purchase with a blowout (courtesy of my ever-understanding missus) on a 80mm f4 El-Nikkor, a battered, bruised (but still good) Beard easel and a Scoponet.
I was ready to go.

It was hard though - those early days of re-learning all the techniques and skills I'd learned in college were difficult. All I had to judge my efforts was my eye and my heart - no handy aesthetic judgements from Mr.McKenzie; no Sandy (the erstwhile and highly knowledgeable darkroom technician) to advise on dilutions. No Safelights (!) Nope it was me and me alone . . oh and my dog-eared copies of 'The Negative' and 'The Print'. But it was funny - I wonder do any of you lot ever get a feeling of spirituality whilst printing? Just asking really, because I quite often do - you can almost feel the ghosts of all the darkroom toilers of years gone by, clinging to the fabric of your darkroom, willing you on, guiding your instincts, blessing your efforts because you (and the precious few left like you) are the last-ditch defence against the loss of key craft skills. When we're gone, we're gone my friends.
I was speaking to a print-maker and photographer last weekend and she said that the darkrooms at DCA (in Dundee - a public art facility with exhibition space and workshops . .and darkrooms) seem to be little used these days - bloody sad! I often wonder whether I am the only living darkroom in this small City on the East Coast of Scotland.
Anyway, yet again I get sidetracked - back to the real meat and potatoes - my early efforts. I've still got most of the prints - they're pretty dodgy with the occasional gem thrown in, but they were produced by me, for me and nobody else - they were pleasurable to make.
As I've said before, darkroom work is fckecking hard. There's simply no easy fix and if anyone tells you otherwise, they're not being truthful. But you know what, with persistence, and a bit of faith you can get there.
For me, having an incredibly understanding family and remembering the feelings I had in my old college-days about printing and the making of lasting images, helped.
I think I have sort of got there. I say sort of, because one is never finished with making prints.

I like images like this where reality is distorted.

So how does this tie in with all the fresh-faced hopefuls stumbling out of creative institutions all over the world clutching their little bits of paper, with hearts full of optimism? And it doesn't matter whether they've studied photography or not . . in the case of DJCAD not as film is no longer taught there . . .
Well, some sage advice, not that anyone will be reading this, however this is my island in the internet sea so I can say whatever I like:
To be a total creative creature you have to make sure that it is an immersive thing - it truly can be a hobby and not a profession, but it still has to be done with every bit of juice your body can muster.
This isn't easy. You have to love what you are striving to do.
You might well come out distraught and dazed, because a lot of those self-same institutions are like the mincers at the end of the promo film for Pink Floyd's Another Brick In The Wall . . people in, but you just get mince out.
For myself, I encountered nepotism, hierarchies, dictatorships and down-right laissez-faire at DJCAD.
It turned my (up to that point) lifelong love of drawing, into something which I haven't done since . . it was that bad.
And yet, a refined sense of the creative process, and a love of being able to create freely was awoken in me too - it's a weird juxtaposition, and I can't help feeling that it was actually good for me.
So, if you are a fresh-faced young fellow of either sex, please bear this in mind - you might well not become employed in your chosen creative endeavour . . you probably won't make a bean from it . . . however, isn't that exciting.
You (young, creative person) are FREE!


The following is a short program from the Ministry Of Truth And Freedom.
It's a dull little exhibit that will probably be of little interest to anyone, however, we, the boffins at the Ministry believe it is an egg-on example of someone making images they are quite happy with, with no constraints on them whatsoever. Moreover, in the case of two of the images, it is an example of determination in the face of a squinty printing easel. 
The chap who made these images is apparently vastly happy, chooses what he wants to photograph and print and produces them accordingly. 
We tip our tifters to him in the obvious face of his inability to produce a photograph of anything even remotely interesting
 We suppose that's the spirit of the thing.
Isn't it?


Winter Tree - Water Of Saughs

Battling a squint Beard Easel, our hero overcomes all, to rise triumphant. 
The photograph was made on a Pentax 67, which I no longer own; is printed on Grade 2 Ilford Galerie and is heavily Selenium toned.

Summer Tree - Glentrool

In a punch-out between age and physical ability, our hero lugged a very large camera bloody miles to make this image for you. 
The lens was a Kodak Ektar, film Kodak TMY2 400. 
It's printed on Adox MCC, which was from a faulty batch.
Yes it is fairly boring, however it pleases me, and isn't that the whole point?

The Pool

Again, the old Pentax 67.
What I like about this is the distortion of reality.
I filed it away for years, but encountered it again recently and rather like it.
Paper is Grade 2 Galerie and it is Selenium toned.

University Building
I would never have made an image like this at DJCAD . . the creative process to make it took years to distill, but I got there in the end. 
The camera was my Rollei T with the 16-on kit. Film was Foma 200, and it is printed on Grade 2 Galerie, but untoned. 
This was made as part of an exercise suggested by John Blakemore in tonality. 
I like it. 
A lot.

Over and oot!


  1. I was listening to a Garry Winogrand interview recently and he said sth that struck me: "A photograph should be more more interesting then the thing(s) photographed; it has to be!".

    When I saw your wonderful Glentrool photo, I immediately remembered the Winogrand line. I think it's a perfect example. The same could be said about the three other photos, although I think Glentrool is particularly striking. It's also a great example about the mysteries of composition (or what Bruce called Structure in his latest post). Who would have thought that the boulder on the lower left and the arc of grass would make the picture.

    I *love* well done photos of trees, and yours are wonderful!

    Thanks for a very nice post, Phil.


  2. I've entertained the idea of making this hobby into a profession. Until, that is, I remember that the best way to ruin a perfectly good hobby is to try to make a living from it. Been down that path before and while I still enjoy what I do for a living (usually!) it is absolutely the LAST thing I want to do when I step out of the office after a day of work.

    Which is why I have a darkroom and shoot black and white film, incidentally. Because after a day of computer stuff I also want nothing to do with pushing sliders around in Photoshop.

  3. Hi Omar and Paul - thank you very much for the comments!

    Paul - I fully agree with you - you just can't beat the visceral response from your body as you drop an opened bottle of fixer! Nah - just joking. I think being in the position whereby it is your responsibility to make money from something you totally love must be pretty horrendous.

    Omar - you make me blush - thank you. Trool is one of my favourite places - fortunately it hasn't been too Forestry Commissioned (it has a bit though), in that it is packed to the gunnels with native hardwood trees. It's a beautiful place. As for the print, I'd filed that away too - wasn't sure about it, but I might now try and make a better print!

    Thank you both again - it's nice to know someone is reading.