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.  

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