Monday, October 09, 2017

A Chance Discovery

Morning folks - do you ever get the feeling that time is playing tricks with you?
I do. I have a mountain of printing to do, but the weekends just seem to run away and before you know it, it's back to the daily usual and nothing done.
Anyway rather than me trying to shoehorn in another Dundee thing (we are The City Of Discovery - literally, Captain Scott's Antarctic ship is berthed here and well worth a visit should you ever decide to visit - but just about every single business in the city tries to fit 'Discovery' into their wording, or so it seems) instead, I will pen a little ditty about coming across something of which I was not aware, but which surprised the heck out of me.

If you've read FogBlog much you'll know of my enormous respect and love for Joseph McKenzie, 'father of modern Scottish Photography' (whatever that is!), mentor, friend for a time and purveyor of jokes, tea, chat and advice. In other words the sort of person anyone would be glad to have around.
Whole days spent in his office, spotting prints and talking and the enormous push towards a degree show, which showed a lot of my landscape photographs . . 
Err, what a fantastic idea eh? 
Go for a graphics degree and end up displaying nearly as much trying-to-get-the-spirit-of-place landscape photographs! 
Ah yes, I was a stone cold genius (read fool) predating the rediscovery of landscape by the masses by oooh a few years (and if you believe that you'll believe anything). 
Still it was a stupid move really, but you know what? I was proud of my photographic exhibition - it is the only one I have ever done.

Anyway, that's away from the main drag - which is the discovery of an image that I personally think is absolutely stunning. 
I found it a few years back (can't remember where, so don't ask) when trawling around for Joe's images on t'net.
It stopped me in my tracks, mainly because I was unaware of its existence, but also because of the technical mastery. 
Now I would say that it appears to be a lithographed print (because it is a poster) so one does wonder whether any tickling-up occurred during the plate-making process. 
You never know. 
It does seem to have that heavy 'graphics' look to it . . 
This was something I practiced, oooh, decades ago when at school and preparing a portfolio for admission to college. 
It's a simple technique - basically, look at something with half closed eyes - your brain will render that down to shapes and light and shadow - then draw it. 
It can also be very useful when taking photographs of iffy subjects too, especially in even dodgier lighting; it renders things down, cuts out superfluous detail and you can get an idea of what a good bit of heavy-handed (or light and delicate!) printing will do to the negative. 
I still use it if I need to.

Back to the poster, though - yes the 'heavy' look is there, but also if you look at the sky below the bridge spans, that looks pretty damn naturally photographic to me. 
The New Tay Railway Bridge bridge opened on the 13th July 1887 - at the time it was a marvel of Scottish Victorian engineering. 
Joe's Centenary photograph gives it an air of wonderful permanence and solidity and dare I say it for something which is so huge - a certain grace and beauty too.
As to the 'graphic' aspect, well certainly he could print anything, and the fireworks do have that aspect, but look closely too - it does have the look of a proper Scottish Summer night, when it never really gets that dark. So, tickling up or not, you decide
Technically, well, it was Joe so more than likely he was using Tri-X and D76 . . it doesn't look like it though does it . . . 
Anyway, that's an aside. 
Here's the poster.
I think it is a technical tour-de-force - let me know what you think.

© Joseph McKenzie Estate 2017

I would dearly love to see the original print . . .
It actually very much reminds me of (if they'd had the same speed on their plates) something that could have appeared in Steiglitz' Camera Work in the early 1900's. 
Maybe that was his intention - it wouldn't surprise me.
If you look closely, you can see, beside the firework traces, the remnants of explosion clouds; those, balanced with the solidity and power, well, one can only wonder at the marvellous happenstance that brought together, light, gunpowder, water, engineering and technical mastery of a medium.
Hands down, it's the best fireworks photograph I have ever seen.
I love it.

Anyway, that is that, more treading water by me till the next 'proper' FB creaks its way out of the fog on its battle-cart . . .

So, before I head, I'll ask you to charge your glasses and raise them to Joe (again).
Photographer, mentor, friend to many, and all-round good egg.
Cheers Joe!

© Joseph McKenzie Estate 2017

TTFN and remember to keep taking the tablets.


  1. Look at it and weep at least 3 tears.

    One for the mastery of composition of the "hard structure".

    Two for the composition of the fireworks, which must have involved an element of chance.

    Three for the millennials and their "Photoshop".

    Great image and strangely affecting.

  2. It is isn't it - I think you could even re-title it, oh I dunno, "New York, 1909" and it could live in that space too. I would seriously love to get a poster of it.

    I've mentioned the Photo Secession on FB before, and I think he has somehow managed to transcend time and join them . . . hmmm. Time travel photographically . . food for thought!

  3. I'm sure you've read this:


  4. Thanks Omar - nice to hear from you, and yes, I have read it . . . I commented on it too!
    Hope you are well.

  5. Oh, I hadn't read the comment.

    What I particularly like about the Tay photo is the wind which seems to be fiercely blowing along the river, elongating the fireworks' trail.

    1. Yeah, me too. A storm a few years back had a wind speed of 120mph up the centre of the Tay - driving home along the river all we could see in the centre was what could best be described as a 'hedge' of spray - it was incredible!

  6. I keep coming back to the "selfie".It's haunting.

    I re-read your post from Feb 1st this year, from which I understand you haven't been in contact for the past 20 odd years. I also presume you haven't seen his darkroom at home. Do you ever have the urge to contact his children and ask to see his darkroom. I know, it could be understood as quite an intrusion, but considering how high in esteem you hold him and your past relationship, it doesn't sound outrageous to me. Anyway, just thinking out aloud...

  7. It's a good selfie eh! Gets his character across to me - serious and yet there was great human warmth just under the surface.
    I had to clean it (the JPG) up a bit, but still.

    As for his house, well it was large and Victorian and in all the years I never visited, because I felt that was like intrusion. Anyway, his wife has sold up and moved somewhere; the plans of the house when it was sold just rendered the Darkroom as a 'Utility' room and I believe his children and grandchildren are working on his archive (extensive) with a view to I know not what.
    There's a large archive of his stuff in the Dundee City collection but it hasn't been exhibited in a while, and even then it was only very partial.

    Funny really, given his reputation and so on - it's almost like Walker Evans or Paul Strand dying as a complete unknown . . .

  8. There must be other photographers in the same situation. Historically, the price of a print has been quite low, so they may well have been disregarded during probate, whereas a painting would not. Many collections of photographs would have been classified by subject matter, rather than by author, so that the work of individuals would have been dispersed. Is it time for some interested individual to chivvy the City Fathers for a bit more pride in their citizen?

  9. I agree with you David.
    Joe needs a major retrospective - would love to compile it myself.
    But you know what? apart from Bruce, the most famous 'photographer' in Dundee these days is:

    From a personal point of view (even though he does use a 5x4 for these 'constructions') I think it has little to do with what I would classify as photography.

    1. My, that's a pile of steaming carp, if ever there was

      The problem I have with the work displayed on CC's website is that once I have seen one of those images, I feel I've seen them all.

      Because we know that a collage is subject to the whim of its creator it had better be done well or not at all. What I have just witnessed seemed repetitive, formulaic and mediocre.

      It leaves me completely cold and unimpressed. Soz!

    2. Thanks Julian - you've expressed that very succinctly.
      See, what the young bods need to teach them is a fire-breathing analogue nut . . maybe I should start a petition . . Sheephouse for President.
      In fact I am now going to crown myself El Presidente!

  10. Well now. I'm always astonished at the stuff that CC produces. Who would ever have thought of doing that? It's certainly very different from what you (and I) do with a camera.
    Just out of idle interest, I googled him and Wikipedia says, inter alia "...Colvin studied at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, Dundee from 1979 to 1983,"
    Aha! I've heard of DoJCoA. And where did I hear of it?
    So, a long shot.
    Might CC be an ally in getting a show, or even just putting the idea into the air, where it could bloom and grow. Dunno really. There are two influential bloggers already enthused and there might be more out there.

  11. I personally just find it awful - it takes me back to a time when the only way to get ahead in Art was to speak the speak . . very much style over substance and lucky to get there.
    I never had much truck with that and I really think it has little to do with photography - maybe photography applied to 'fine art' painting, but the craft and process of photography? No, not in my eyes.
    I plied the corridors of Joe's photography department at the same time, and I really don't remember much of him, just, if I recall, a slight chap who used to alway be disappearing with a tank in his hands, but not a huge amount on display, and very little coming from Joe's side either and I knew the man well enough to talk about other students with him.
    But who knows, maybe he has some influence being a guiding light in modern visualisation!

  12. It's a curious thing, the way photographers divide into camps and then define "photography" as what they themselves do or prefer. As far as I can see, if it uses a camera, it's photography. I know a number of photographers and collectively, we are a bit sniffy about Camera Clubs. What we do is somehow more real, more authentic, we tell ourselves. Camera Clubs do have some peculiarities of course.
    If we played tennis, would we be so sniffy about other tennis players in quite the same way? What would be our attitude to badminton? It uses very similar paddles, the net is higher and they hit feathers over it instead of ball, but basically, it's the same sort of thing. Then there's squash, that fits itself into a smaller space by reflection. ...and there really is something called Real Tennis, although I don't know that the other forms are dismissed by "real" players.
    I'm indirectly trying to suggest that there's some profit in trying to grasp what other people with cameras are doing, even if we don't propose doing it ourselves.
    This has made me think. I've just done a bit of googling, and blow me down, making images via electric wire pre-dates making them by enlarger.
    Interesting, eh? Enlarging is the junior form.

    1. @DavidM:
      "Camera Clubs" the least said the better. Full of a***ly retentive pedants who prize technical prowess over artistic flair the lot of them. What we do is somehow more real, more authentic.

      "If it uses a camera it's photography?" In the same way that if it uses a violin it's music?

      If I played tennis, then I would indeed seek to differentiate myself from the feeble minded pursuers of other racquet sports. If I were into squash then I wouldn't hesitate to join the barricades and hurl derision at the slow-witted practitioners of that faux sport known as "tennis". Yet should any of my fellow paddle-wielding comrades come under attack from hordes of, say, unwashed rugby players then I would proudly stand shoulder to shoulder with my badminton brethren.

      I agree that we should keep our minds open to other ways of doing things, other practices and approaches. And then swiftly dismissing them as a load of old tosh and carrying on as before.

  13. Hi David -I knew you'd say something like that and I know it makes me look as if I am closed minded, but to put this into persepective, this man is in charge of a department that effectively is a name only - just check - everyone that wants to study photography in Scotland pretty damn near goes to Edinburgh or Glasgow. Joe McKenzie had a legacy here which he built from nothing and it deserves respect.
    As far as I can see, and having spoken to a member of the 'digital' staff, there's a hunger with the students at DOJCA to learn the old stuff, you know, the weft and craft of photography as we know it - traditional work.
    So, Colvin's 'work' is using a camera but to an end that I personally think, denigrates the craft - blimey I use a fine sable brush to work on fine work when I am painting mouldings on a door, but it doesn't make me Picasso!
    It's like putting the cart before the horse, and I find that really sad.
    As Joe Pass the jazz guitarist once said with regard to improvisation, 'learn it all, and then forget it all'. You need to learn technique and the use of a camera, and the basic bottom line of that is (dare I say it) traditional process.
    Learn it, certainly, then forget it and go your own path, as Colvin has . . but only do that when those in your care have had a solid footing that could set them up for life
    Shit, I'd love to see some 'proper' silver gelatin prints from him but I think those are things of the past. You need to teach and inspire, like Joe did for hundreds of students; if you can look at that body of 'work' and find anything remotely photographically inspiring about it other than someone pursuing a truly vague ouvre, then well done!

  14. I'd never heard of Calum Colvin but, having checked out his website, find that my life has been somewhat enriched - by a renewed appreciation of actual photography. My basic rule is that if an artwork has either of the words "constructed" or "construction" (or "conceptual") attached to it then it's going to be crap. Sadly, Calum hasn't proved to be the exception. How did his thinking go? "I'd like to do sething about Burns. I'll collect some stuff that could conceivably be linked to him, arrange it against a backdrop in a studio and superimpose a portrait of the communist over the top of it. That'll do it. Must dress it up in some artspeak now so that nobody understands it." How much easier that must be than tramping over hills carrying an LF kit and half a dozen DDS and waiting for the right light.

    I think there's a danger here that, to my conservative way of thinking, mirrors the move from moral absolutism to relativism. Some art - a lot of art - is just complete bollocks but we're afraid to say it, always having to find new ways to explain it or "appreciate" it.

    I know you were in tongue in cheek mode, Phil, when you said "apart from Bruce" Calum was the best known Dundee photographer but, for the sake of those non-Dundonians dropping by, can I just say that I am absolutely and completely unknown in photography circles in my home town. Or in any other circles, come to think of it.

  15. Cheers Bruce - good comments and I totally agree, especially paragraph 2.

    As for being known, well, you deserve to be, and my tongue is not in my cheek!

  16. Mr Sheephouse, Sir,
    I can't disagree with anything you said. On the other hand, I do deplore a kind of creeping tribalism that I notice on some other websites. I don't think it's a healthy way to think. I must add that this is not an injunction that we should be obliged to like anything, but rather that we should explore and understand why we dislike it. Sometimes, we may simply recoil from the unfamiliar, or even from the over-familiar.
    So, perhaps this is a plea for tolerance.
    I slipped in the fact about enlarging ("proper" photography) being the Johnny-come-lately of photography to illustrate that things are not always what they seem. A form of electrical imaging, intended to be used to transmit images and facsimile documents was patented in (I think) 1843, only three years after WHFT's announcement. It was never used to print in the way that we make digital prints today, but the principle of sending a picture down a wire is the same. Eventually, it evolved into the fax. The first solar-powered enlarger came later. Enlarging had to wait for the spread of electricity.
    And Bruce,
    Of course most of what's produced is rubbish. Everybody knows that.
    A debate on moral absolutism will have to wait. Perhaps this is not the place anyway.
    And both of you are quite famous already. Keep up the good work.

  17. You know David I am a very tolerant person, but you know when you see something and no matter how you look at it, it makes you feel uneasy because of its, how shall we say, contrived-ness, and it's oh so Art Club gaffawing (I think Private Eye used to do a thing called Pseud's Corner, and that rings true in my mind) well that's how I felt with those photos. It was a gut feeling too. I didn't like it, and I felt it had nothing to do with photography, and certainly not photography with a legacy to uphold.

    As a curious aside, and weirdly coincidental, I sit now not 50 yards from the monument you see in this article:


  18. This comment has been removed by the author.

  19. Yes indeed. One of those astonishing Victorians that we don't seem to produce today. "...a crown of rejoicing..." What a phrase eh?
    Now, let me take you to task, although it's not really my place. I am relying on some tolerance. Gut feelings are all very well. We may squeak and jump onto the table with our skirts up when we see a mouse. That's gut reaction.
    Sir, you are a writer and a thinker. A witty treatise on small mammals and how they relate to humans and other species is what we'd hope for. In the case of CC, there must be reasons behind his putting in all that effort. I'm sure there are logical reasons why you react as you do. Can I repeat that I don't suggest that you should like the work, only that your blog would be richer if you teased out the reasons for your distaste.
    My own mind halts at the Gee Whizz stage when I see them and I'm diverted into the mechanics of doing it. A brushstroke – run back to camera – another stroke – back under the cloth... is that how it works? Has he discovered a different system?
    There's no doubt that they are photographs as such, so the difficulty must lie with the highly wrought subject. Should a Platonically ideal photographer be a hunter-gatherer rather than a farmer? (Is there a spectrum between iPhone and Sinar? iPhone, Leica, Nikon, Hasselblad, Sinar, Hubble? That's another matter.)
    I'm allowing myself to concentrate too much on one individual; I have no special interest in promoting or explaining him, but he has accidentally served as a handy trigger to discuss the existence of diverse or alien thinking in photography.
    We began with your mentor and how his work might be given some long-overdue public attention. I must admit that I'd not heard of him either until I read of him here. It's great fireworks picture. One small step...

    1. Hi David - and you know that your comments are always welcome and definitely make me think.
      As to how he got there, well I suppose it correlates with how people get to large collections of anything really.
      That I don't like it is a gut reaction, but also when processed by my single brain cell, I discover I still don't like it!
      I really just don't like it at all.

      I guess what I am miffed about is that Joe built up photography in Dundee from nothing and fought his whole career against intransigence, lip service, ignorance and dislike. He once described the Photog dept at DOJCA as "The ruby in the pig's arsehole" and it was only years later did I fully understand that.
      Nowadays, what I see is something that is as far up that pig's posterior as it is possible to get.
      I went through the Art College mill - remember Mini-Me from Austin Powers? That's the standard of a lot (but not all) creative education in my experience - you are required to take on an aspect of whoever is educating you.
      Joe didn't do that. He encouraged and then got out of the way until you needed him - it was masterful and as I have said before I was incredibly lucky to be in the right place at the right time.

  20. Curiosity drove me to do a bit of searching. What I found may give you a little bit of encouragement. No doubt you have seen them before, but I hadn't. McKenzie is new to me.

  21. Hi David - yeah I knew of those.

    With the Gorbals stuff, he drove from Dundee to Glasgow a couple of times a week for a long time just to document what was happening. He was a Hoxton lad so had seen proper inner city deprivation, and knew it in his own life, so he wanted to get some idea out of what was happening with the 'improvements' of the 1960's. It was a herculean effort.
    He did the same in Dundee - that picture of the lads by the large puddle and the buildings is about half a mile away from where I live. You can clearly see a University building (all blocky) in the background and this area of the Hawkhill was 'improved'- basically flattened!

    As I've raved on before, he was really a great force for photography, and I personally feel it was like Walker Evans or Paul Strand dying, and nobody bothering to acknowledge it. Sad state of affairs.

  22. And then I found this:

    The Archive page says "Coming soon." Things might be getting a little bit better. The pies look good.

  23. Hi David - thanks for the hunting! I knew about that too - his grandaughter apparently.

    The pies, or pehs as they're pronounced . .
    Och you'll still not get the accent, so here's a lesson:

    Knock Knock
    Who's There?
    Fred Who?
    Fred Eggs

    That's sums up the accent!
    They'll be typical Scotch pies though - mutton mince (peppery) and a water-crust . . they are nice actually!

  24. I know; I've eaten them. Nice thin pastry. They're more exotic than chocolate-covered Martians down here. I think I'll stick to my modified N English pronunciation. Glaswegians seem to understand it.

    1. That's it then - surrogate Scotsman, stamped with a K for Kulture!


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