Saturday, 9 August 2014

Fleetway, a story in twelve photo fails


Beyond the fence is a burned down farmhouse and a DANGER KEEP OUT sign. My camera club gains access through a gap in the fence. We are here with our middle format cameras,  to shoot real film! I have one '120' film, that's just 12 photos that I can  shoot today. One member nudges a carpet cleaner lying abandoned in front of the house casually with their foot. I circle the appliance carefully, not wanting to disturb it as if it belonged to a crime scene. They go. I stay at the house. Too long! The carpet cleaner is certainly appealing in its shade of retro blue. It's not working, but resting, like an out of work actor. On a carpet of leaves, it is just biding its time. Later, after processing the film, I see two teeth like marks on the left hand side of the film. The negative is split and damaged. Perhaps this carelessness is the start of it all.


I have definitely stayed at the broken down farmhouse too long. I am starting to feel uncomfortable. After all, I am trespassing. Why didn’t I just cadge a lift with the others. Outahere. The carpet cleaner surely feels inadequately portrayed by the camera. Although I don’t get the film back for several weeks, it may already be perturbed that I have so rudely exposed the rust spots in its powder blue finish. It’s not daft. It knows how appealing it looks now that it has retro cool status. The carpet cleaner ceases to rest. Over the next few weeks before the film is developed it slowly springs into action, cleaning the photographic image away from the second frame of the film. It is in collusion with the house. In two weeks it manages half a frame, leaving a line to show where it has tidied.


The farm, you see, belonged to a grand estate. The manor is just a ruin now. The walled garden is filled with snowdrops in the spring. At the gatehouse, near the entrance, a ‘friend’ of the estate has shows me the photocopied leaflet about the history of the manor.  'You see, the son and heir of the estate, he kept 30 stray dogs in the manor house, let it go to rack and ruin, can you see?’ She points to a photograph of a room and I say ‘oh yes I see, how terrible’, but I can’t actually really make out what is going on in the photograph, which has been reproduced many times . But I believe her, and now I can imagine the overturned dog bowls and torn upholstery and carpets ruined when I look at the pattern of indistinct inky blobs long enough.


Where did this picture of my skin appear from? I remember focusing my camera on the springs of an upturned sofa lying at the side of the house. I remember photographing broken bits of roof slate on the ground. I used a semi-telephoto lens, and believe you me they are heavy and cumbersome on a camera like a Pentacon. But almost as soon as I reach this conclusion  I realise I am mistaken. It turns out not to be skin at all but flickers of fine fire on the photograph.


However, these mysterious flickers turn out to be less benign than they appear. They have reduced the roof of the house to charred ribs. The film is reasserting itself. It wants to depict something concrete, not abstract, but it can only manage dilapidation. The camera is considering how many seconds, minutes, hours or days of consideration it takes to create a photograph and not just a snapshot. (The film and camera both are actually deeply afraid of ‘Bilderflut’ ((too many photos in the world)). The camera doesn’t have light meter. It might not be reliable. It isn’t digital- its never even heard of that.


The house retorts with one cutting word ‘PAPER’. The meaning is not lost on the film. That is: Paper has no depth, something the film is acutely aware of. Moreover, in one hundred years time, implies the house, I will probably still be here, at least my foundations at any rate. But you will be blank, film. Any decisive moments you may have had will be long gone, chemically erased with age, colour prints do not last. Read the writing on the wall. It will probably last longer than you, which is why it was written in the first place!


The photographic film, make of Fuji, is in a huff now. It frames the house’s empty window frame.The  empty window frame frames the film. It is an impasse. 


Finally the film concedes. So what, says the film, I am not having a battle of egos with a burned down house that noone will ever buy. Listed, i.e. high maintenance, obviously. Meanwhile the house has lost interest in the self-obsessed film and totally blanks the camera. It wishes it could just take its charred old timbers and wander off just to get a bit of piece and quiet. It wishes someone would secure the fence to stop all these bloody photographers trapsing about. Without the house, the film, in frame eight, just exposes itself and is quite pleased with the result. It can never really show nothing, even if it tries, it muses. Even the camera has nodded off at the self-congratulatory tone of the film.


The film remembers a painting it once saw and photographs it so it appears out of focus. What was sharply defined paint is now thrown into a blurry kind of parallel reality. It coins a genre: painting-realistic photography.


 I recognise this picture but the film doesn’t. There is a water tower, you can see it through the window. There is an overgrown garden, growing in what used to be a stable. When I walked into the ruin past the DANGER KEEP OUT sign, two birds, startled, flew out of a bush. As I lined up the shot, two children jumped through the window. Then ran out through the door.


 At least this one has got a straight line, and there appears to be no parallax or anything horrible like that. We could be facing a tower block or, if we change scale, a vent.  Or perhaps it is an edge where you can peer over into a void. No, look up! You are just sheltering under an awning. But still, it’s hardly the golden mean rule of composition, is it? It’s not golden, maybe mean. Having said that, the photo was most deliberate. Actually this photo had to be reshot to get the golden mean otherwise known as  rule of thirds composition just wrong. It is definitely not a snapshot.


Wasn’t there a curtain in the house, pristine, white, like a feather to the touch, which was a surprise because everything around it was falling apart and the air smelt of charred wood, though the house “had burned down years ago”? Weren't the windows boarded up? I don’t remember it being that dark, not even when I blinked. I was there at midday, not such a great time to photograph a building, but definitely not so dark. Did I miss something? Was it the camera then that saw that darkness then? Or was it the film? Half snapped in the light. Half shot in the dark. Snapshot.  

Friday, 1 August 2014

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

I am beautiful, orange

On a bus
Straight to town
A little girl
Her grandmother, grandiose
Asks her: What’s your favourite colour, Blue?
Answers her own question with: Oh I do not like yellow
-each word juddering like the bus
And: I hate orange – as if she could spit the colour out

Still on the bus
Now straight in the town
To a shoe shop bus-stopped
In front, a woman waits in a dress
Pithy, its colour a bright orange zest
An orange that grates
Now that grandmother has infected my sense of taste
Its orange, impossibly so
Reflecting no cellulite texture
Orange and tasteless with the pips spat out

But grandma cries out loudly
“Oh, but what a beautiful dress!
Look, dear, see! She has a beautiful dress on!
Oh my, can you see dear, what a beautiful dress, look!”
It’s so orange, it is hardly a dress
Surely anyone can see that?
But she really can’t stop herself now
Pulping her fictive interest

For a granddaughter who I am not sure
Likes orange, or yellow, shoe shops or dresses
Or even her grandmother come to think of it
With her fatuous opinions designed to squash and remove her
But you hate this colour, I want to say
I feel angry, betrayed
For the granddaughter behind me squeezed out and mute
with the grandmother who spits colour all over the shop

The bus drives on, the orange walks away
Both leaving the town centre
A girl’s expectations pared down
Sits patiently as colour slowly exits the bus
Exhausted fumes of orange, yellow and blue
It’s not colours she likes, no, it is catching her own reflection
In shoe shop windows,
But now there are just houses,
‘So I must no longer be here’, a vague idea
The bus journey now interrupted by traffic lights green, orange,

Monday, 16 June 2014

The enthusiast's museum

I was visiting Olso on a recce for relocation plans at the beginning of the month, when I took this photograph of an exhibit in the Oslo Tramway Museum. The design and aesthetics of trams from yesteryear are crucial to any decisions about upping sticks and moving to a new country, obviously!

What I like about such museums is that they are run by enthusiasts or amateur collectors. This museum, which we just stumbled across, is run by a non profit organisation of 450 members.

You can't imagine a gallery or prominent museum presenting a documentary film in the makeshift frame in the photograph above. Enthusiasm has ripped a hole into the past, there is nothing slick or superficial here, interaction is analogue and raw. Touch the surface, you will feel something.

For lack of either money or time, artifacts, many papers and objects have not yet found a 'home' in this museum. One driving compartment was stuffed with rolled up maps and objects, while other objects were out of bounds, in areas cordened off by tickertape and red road cones. I like coming across such back spaces in other public buildings, where things are stored. In the tram museum they are as much a part of the experience as the trams themselves.

Having said that, I am not really interested in when this or that tram was decommissioned. I just like the colours and look of the old trams, the way the destination signs have been hung vertically over one another on the wall and the slightly ramshackle atmosphere of the museum and someone else's interest in yesteryear. I am not a tram enthusiast myself. An interloper?

These kind of museums bring back memories of my childhood. I remember one holiday setting up my own 'museum' with a friend, collecting rocks, objects found by the wayside, even old bones as I remember. We were in a hot place and the museum was in a cave. I think we waited a long time for people to visit our carefully arranged exhibits; nobody came.

The image of the tram compartment in the above photo appeals to me for a different reason. The name of this blog was inspired by the painting Compartment C, Car 293 (1938) by Edward Hopper, which shows a woman sitting alone in a train carriage, moving through landscape. Alain de Botton includes a reproduction of this painting in his book, The Art of Travel, and writes:

"Hopper was drawn to trains. He was drawn to the atmosphere inside half-empty carriages making their way across a landscape: the silence that reigns inside while the wheels beat in rhythm against the rails outside, the dreaminess fostered by the noise and the views from the windows, a dreaminess in which we seem to stand outside our normal selves and have access to thoughts and memories that may not arise in other circumstances. The woman in Compartment C, Car 293 (1938) seems to be in such a frame of mind, reading her book and shifting her gaze between the carriage and the view."

Having a blog has felt like having a 'room of ones own' in whatever space you may feel the internet may actually be. I would go so far as to say it is a physical space for me in that can help my mind travel.  Having said that I would admit that my blog has also the feel of an enthusiast's museum: It needs tidying up, gets carried away by certain details and I don't have the technical knowhow to refine its look.

But I am always grateful when people take the time to stop by.

Tuesday, 10 June 2014


I am visiting Oslo and this is one of my first, but possibly most important lessons in Norwegian: ICE LOLLIES YUM! Sometimes nothing gets lost in translation

University Library Oslo, otherwise known to insiders as the "Black Temple"with its imposing facade and giant columns clad in black granite:  once inside though, you will discover the interior is oddly tilted at a 45 degree angle. How do those academics get any work done?

Oslo is surprisingly hilly, here an unexpected view across allotments to a corn silo converted into housing 

Cafe Kasbar is an oasis in this expensive city. Their motto is, "Make Hummus, not Walls." You can't move for motivational messages stuck up around the place, but its shabby and slightly cluttered chic and home made ice tea is as refreshing as its prices.

I don't think I have ever seen such an unfair distribution of balconies. On the expat website I read that people may not judge you by your income or job, but they do judge you on the area you live in. 

Grunnform: primary form  Vekst: Growth  Hastighet: Velocity, speed.  Norwegian is a Germanic language, so luckily I already can decipher a few words on these blocks seen in an architects/artists studio.

Thinking about that expat site again and how will I be judged for living in a wooden house in this part of town.
Not to worry, as I probably won't be able to afford it anyway.

I visited  the FRAM museum which documents Polar exploration. On these fridge magnets available in the shop is a photo of polar explorer Roald Amundsen planting the Norwegian flat at the South Pole in 1911. The museum stresses how the Innuit people helped him to learn the arctic survival skills he needed. He lived with the Innuit people for a year, learning their language, respected their culture and built a relationship with them that was mutually beneficial, whereas before that time explorers had regarded the Innuit as inferior. Their ignorance would cost them their lives.

 Oslo holocaust Memorial. Cast iron empty chairs by British artist Anthony Gormley. They are located on the South side of the Oslo Fjord in front of the old fort near where the ships carrying 750 of Norway's Jews to Stettin and then Auschwitz departed from.

The Oslofjord  with sailing boats, motor boats and ferries going to Kiel and Copenhagen. Here though,  I was trying to make the l in Oslo. 

Patience. Trying to watch an outdoor screening when it doesn't get dark until midnight

If you move the decimal point one place to the left then you will see the price of wine per glass and per bottle, and weep

Oslo's Patron Saint, St Hallvard with his attributes, the millstone and arrows, oh and a naked woman at his feet.