I'm still at it. The still life photographic project. I spent so much time researching the theoretical discourse, the histories and contemporary practice that I'm invested in the form. And because I find it difficult I embrace the challenge. Although I'm not wholly attached to originality above all else it would be desirable to find some kind of niche in my practice. Recently I changed locations, from the back garage studio to a room in the house. The summer light was too high and harsh and also too extreme in dynamic range over the course of a day with the arc of the sun. So I moved to room where there's a large window, a good north light and more space to set things out. There's quite a lot of clutter involved in still life photography, at least the way I do it. As it happens this is the start of the season for excellent light back in my garage space. The frosted glass window is smaller but as the sun lowers lightly and is less intense there are some wonderful casts of light at certain times. When it's too dark is a good time for long exposures using the pinhole camera.
I started tethering properly with this tentative new series. This is where you hook up the computer to the laptop so you have a generous view of your composition. I have to say it helps to judge lines, margins, light and of course depth of field. The two images I'm showing were taken with a Sony A7r3 and a Voigtlander 50mm F2 APO-Lanthar lens which is by far and away the best lens I've ever used. This is a manual lens which has excellent fine-detailed focusing capabilities in combination with the Sony body. With these tools I've been working to define compositions either by a thin sliver of focus, the circle of confusion, or by defining an accurate hyperfocal distance (using a phone app and a tape measure) to try to get the whole show in focus.
This is called The Boat and the Lighthouse. Initially I had no intention of seeing these simple compositions as anything other than studies in form - shape, colour, light, distribution - but on my first attempt at juxtaposing various objects I began to see the overall composition as something else, a representation of a narrative, however tenuous or abstracted. The other thing is that the objects are taken partly from the domestic environment (in this case a handbell) and partly from the forest, these being the environments in which I work from day to day. I'm very pleased with the concept and ideas behind this this though the challenge from now on is to find enough domestic objects with sufficient 'resonance' to create some kind of secondary representation along with the woodland found materials. As you can see the point of focus is at the stern of the 'boat'. With these wide aperture images there's a huge difference in how an image can speak to you depending on whether the out-of-focus field is towards the front or the back of the frame. This particular choice the direction of travel with respect to the boat. I leave the viewer to judge. A minor point is that I'm pleased with the high key nature of this photograph. It wasn't intended or post-processed as such. I don't tend to do very much in post production because I want to get as close as possible to what I want in-camera. Not much point in having a good lens if you're not going to put it to best use.
These are two takes on what I've called Eve and the Serpent, based on the same narrative concept as the previous image, though here the reference is Biblical or even mythical. I think that in both cases the use of composition (obviously) and depth of field (less so) help to offer entirely different readings of the image. The first has Eve, another small handbell, somewhat sheltered by what might be read as a cave or a tree. She's perhaps unsure or afraid of the serpent . Here I would say that the serpent is the protagonist, approaching. The tree or cave is not entirely in sharp focus but it's defined enough to make it and Eve the combined subject. In the second image Eve has emerged from the shelter to confront the serpent. Both shelter and serpent are more or less equally out of focus which places Eve clearly at the centre of the narrative. Which works best? Let me know your thoughts. Maybe both would sit well on different pages in a photobook. Decisions, decisions. Finally I think that such readings become more evident or welcome because of the introduction of what we might call a human figure, albeit in in the form of a brass bell.
There'll be more on this as I work my way through other combinations and narrative ideas. Thanks for reading.
There are five or six forest walks that I do regularly. These are the primary sites of my landscape art. I carry out my inspections, have a quiet word with the trees as befits my position, track the wildlife, keep a keen eye on the state of the paths, formulating various punishments for horse riders, make notes of littering and so forth. The forests have become more interesting the more I walk them and ever more intriguing when I leave the path and head into the depths, which I do more frequently, to take pictures, to film, to think. They're all within less than an hour from my house but I'm not going to say precisely where in case I'm forced to go full redneck on hordes of idiots with camper vans who find out and decide to drive around like plague zombies, choking up the back roads or dumping their litter.
One such walk I call the fairy walk because children and their parents have decorated the trees along the lower half of the walk with small wooden house shapes. These have painted-on doors, windows and other features My daughter tells me that this is also done in and around parts of Galway in the west of Ireland. I can see how young children might imagine their hand-made houses to be a way for the fairies to get in and out of the tree. I used to imagine such things when I was very young.
But now I'm old(er) and before me lies the serious business of making something photographic out of this walk, a walk with its own baked-in narrative. Further on we find small bridges, swings, a gnarly tree, a hut with other wooden structures and enclosures for kids to play. Sadly the hut will have to go because people were making fires - never a good idea in a forest. I mentioned narrative and this is the key to such a project. It's not really about telling a linear illustrated story as such with its plot or dramatic action. In a photographic series the trick for me is to tell a different kind of story by means of the play of forms or colour or depth of field (which are forms themselves), along with the techniques of the photobook learned from accomplished artists. For example, what should follow this image? Should it be on the same page, double spread or overleaf? Then there's the question of getting the framing right, or mixing formats - landscape with square with nearly square because of the need to crop. You'll get the idea from some of the test shots I've gathered together into small groups. Did I ever say that I find photography difficult? Maybe it all falls into place with experience.
I love photobooks (did I mention I have a couple of zines for sale?). I also love visiting photographic galleries but the two experiences are entirely different. On the one hand a day out to the gallery, a social experience, a chance to be sniffy about curators, a coffee and a cake afterwards. On the other hand you get all the prints from an artist's project in one book, often with text (for better or worse) and layered on top of the art in the photography is the art of sequencing which in the best photographers can be as pleasurable as the images themselves. It's an aspiration. So at some point I'd like my Inspector series to find its way into print but there's still a way to go.
Patience or rather time is important in a project like this, whether it comes from virtuous patience or less virtuous procrastination. In my case it has meant that I've seen the walk from all angles and in all weathers and now I can risk saying that I know what I want.
Here's an excerpt from my photography log earlier this year.
..then I went on a very good walk to put into practice some of the ideas I picked up from bits of research, eg photobooks. I did the whole circuit which is a lot (100 photos). Got everything I wanted and more, though I could do more on the ‘empty subject’, for example a fence with background, then something busy in the vicinity, then back to details around the fence, as if the eye was roving (this type of photobook sequencing will be understood better if you watch Alex Soth on his YouTube photobook series)..
There’s always a problem with something when I do photography (actually when I do anything involving decision-making and creativity) and here it’s primarily the depth of field. For these initial shots I used a Fuji X-T3, an excellent mirrorless camera which has a cropped sensor. The lenses are sharp with excellent rendering and they offer some fine distant blurring as you can see from some of the shots but now, having seen the work of some of the large format photographers and some who use very good lenses on a full frame digital cameras, I want to be able to get a sliver of the overall deep field in focus and to move this back and fore till the subject or subjects has the prominence required within a well structured photo. To this end I’ll re-photograph the entire walk, or most of it, using a recently acquired Sony A7riii with a Voigtlander 50mm F2 APO-Lanthar (manual) lens which is probably the most excellent photographic experience I’ve ever had. I wanted initially to replicate some of the shots using a Zenza Bronica ETRS which is a medium format film camera but might wait till late autumn or winter to make my own monochrome prints in the darkroom, possibly as gifts or for round the house. Of which more later.
Yes I know, everything's on the left. Some need reversing.
I've been back and fore to the forest in all weathers - walking, sitting, thinking, filming and snapping and now I have a 5' film in its final stages. Not being a 'proper' professional film-maker I lack knowledge about how to establish an effective workflow. Not that it matters too much. I begin with ideas and concepts along with various pieces of imagery in my mind which then need to be realised as film. One thing I did was to mix colour imagery with monochrome, to differentiate elements of the narrative. I'm sure there's a rule somewhere about that sort of thing. The sound comes and goes as the project develops, as do the words, spoken or written on the screen. As with many art forms there comes a point when you see the living work, the organism, as complete unto itself. Rather than go into a long essay about ideas I thought to share some of the text I want to include in the film, along with some stills. I will say however that most of my conversations with a forest end up in confessions, apologies and remorse. We haven't really looked after our forests very well if the truth be told.
you have no need for words
and yet you are a talking book
you ask for nothing
you the cryptic host
and me the guest, the parasite
your toppled elders have the priest's ear
inviting apology, remorse, confession
with a sigh
I've been back and fore to the 'graveyard of the elders' many times in the last few weeks, filming, sound recording and taking pictures using digital, film and polaroid cameras. I now have about eighty percent of the footage. As you can see from the image above I've decided to return to the coloured gel technique I used in Is It Beautiful? described here. These shots will be juxtaposed with black and white shots and stills relating specifically to the formal properties of the stumps (or if you prefer, the listening elders) and to my arrival at and ritual communication with these fallen trees.
There are still some pieces of the puzzle that I haven't finished putting together yet, including the musical, sonic components which always require careful attention. I'm asking friends and colleagues for their ideas on what they might say to the forest and what the forest might say to them, were such a thing possible in language, with a view to using snippets of these 'conversations' as text within the film, much in the same manner as I did in Is It Beautiful? The final piece of the jigsaw is the idea that one of the most meaningful communicative acts between us and forests is in the domain of biochemistry, respiration, the exchange of carbon dioxide and oxygen. As we breathe out, the forest breathes in, as the forest exhales we inhale. The sighing forest. Just imagine what a sound artist might do with such a notion....
I continue with my photographic practice and research alongside the usual fretting over the live performance of electroacoustic music. I thought here that I'd tie together these two practices by referring to an excellent interview I read the other day. Tim Carpenter is a photographer, a writer, and a co-founder of the photography book publishing imprint TIS Books. In this era of fast and dirty results in photography, and to an extent experimental music, his work might not be to everyone's taste because it eschews single image impact, focusing instead on the series, which requires a slow appreciation, a deep understanding of form and a respect for the history of the medium, three approaches which, as I've said, are not much in evidence these days. But his work and ideas have much to say to someone (like me) still learning the craft of photography and also to someone like me who spends most of his life managing the emergence of form in musical composition.
The article can be read here.
I'm simply going to take extracts from the article which mirror very well (and articulate far more effectively than I could) my own notions around artistic practice, formal considerations and even beauty, yes that. Finally he talks of 'new rurality' which, although reductive, wraps up very nicely most of what I'd consider myself to be doing as photographer from day to day in and around the Scottish Borders.
As I’ll explain more, my primary goal is to use a camera not as a recorder of thought, but as the instrument of thought.
I do think photography is the medium of the walker.
When one seeks to illustrate ideas, there’s rarely (never? maybe) any friction from the real world; nothing is transformed and nothing refuses to be transformed.
So, no, I’m not simply taking photographs; I’m calibrating the inside against the outside. And every once in a while, through constant shooting, I come upon a way of calibrating – a form – that seems true to both self and not-self.
..form IS the underlying pulse. We are form-making creatures; it’s the way we manage the chaos outside and are able to live moment by moment. We abstract from both inside and outside to create something in the middle, which is meaning. We are in a constant state of poesis – “the activity in which a person brings something into being that did not exist before.” This constant meaning-making could also be called “thinking.” Form-making IS thinking, the epistemological act. It’s also the calibration I was speaking of before. The problem is that the gap is unbridgeable and our desire for formal coherence is unquenchable. The longing for completion will never be satisfied.
When a person makes a thing that expresses the process of form-making, we have an aesthetic object. My belief is that the primary objective of a work of art is to communicate the ineffable from one idiosyncratic self to another. That which is effable – politics, economics, science &etc – can be adequately communicated outside of art. Which is to say that subject matter can be adequately communicated outside of art. So for me, the aesthetic object is to be judged a success or failure based on its formal ability to evoke cogency. Coherence. Beauty even.
The successful poem or song or picture is a fleeting connection between self and world. And it helped me immensely to calm that external flux in at least one way, by looking at the same streets and buildings and fields throughout the days and seasons and over the course of years. I really noticed when small things changed: a tree cut down, a house painted. But I also was made to focus more on the internal flux: what made me different on one day versus the next, or the next year.
Here in the Borders I'm fortunate to have become acquainted with a community of experimental film makers, the Moving Image Makers Collective (MIMC). The Borders is a semi-rural region with a low population, small towns and no universities, art schools or other large cultural institutions. It's therefore quite an admirable achievement to have over a dozen committed moving image artists in the one place. This is largely down to the work of those involved in establishing the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival, founded by Richard Ashrowan and now run by a team of curators and administrators working out of Hawick as Alchemy Film and Arts.
I'm involved with MIMC in a group project to produce work for a forest event in September 2021 and as part of this I want to create a short film, to be screened more or less conventionally though in a unique site, and some kind of installed work for the forest itself, which allows for a much wider remit. The other artists are: Richard Ashrowan, Dawn Berry, Kerry Jones, Jane Houston-Green, Jessie Growden, Sukjin Kim, Douglas McBride, Jason Moyes and Nicoletta Stephanz. In the past my involvement with the group and the festival has been in the sonic and musical domain, with a spell as a trustee on the Board of Alchemy so I'm very pleased to come in now to such an experienced and established group as an emerging film-maker.
I've spent many years wandering in the Borders forests (I am after all The Inspector of Forests). Field recording, taking photos, listening, unburdening, watching deer run past me as I fouter with my camera's memory card, running away from civilisation, listening to the spiders scream - all the usual stuff. Now I have a commitment to put together a film project and here, even though I've been working this project over and over I'm my mind for some time now, I want to share some thoughts and details of my research. One of the problems I always face in a new project, especially outside of my usual domain, is that I come up with too many ideas. So before I wander around the peripheries let's begin with my current preoccupation. Tree stumps. Upturned trees blown over by the high winds at the top of a rise not far from Jedburgh, towards the Cheviots. I've discovered a 'graveyard of the elders', a region of the forest where all the elders rest, having in their death throes turned over massive lumps of earth, home to birds, insects and plant life. These are both the ears of the forest and portals into the secrets of the forests. If I can only find the proper and correct ritual or offering I can unlock these secrets and perhaps confess some of my own. An offering of wind and air, a small fire of twigs and leaves. Or a votive offering, something of our technology, or a baptismal rite by the small pool that appears in the shadow of the fallen trees after the rains.
All images are straight out of the camera. Taken with a Fujifilm X-T3 and a Fujinon XF35mmF1.4 R
I wrote about sourcing sounds for composition. There's obviously more to it than simply recording sounds or events. The whole process is anthropological and therefore complex. When it comes to editing and processing these recorded sounds things are, on the face of it, much simpler.
I transfer recorded sounds from the recording device to the computer then I edit them and compose using software applications. I could equally do this on a multi-track analogue tape recorder and I know some composers who still do. First I use Steinberg's Wavelab to listen back to the sounds. This takes a long time because I'm trying all the time to listen for possibilities beyond the actual sounds before me. I trim and level up the audio files, removing any unwanted sections, then open them up in Reaper, a digital audio workstation application which has a very simple time stretch function. This is where the sounds are timestretched, lengthened more often than shortened, a procedure which reveals new morphologies and further potential. At the same time I apply equalisation or filtering, which reduces or boosts frequencies, reduction being by far the most common procedure. I use a digital equaliser called Equilibrium made by DMG Audio which was recommended by a professional sound engineer. It offers digital emulations of all the great hardware equalisers and the level of detail and control it affords is unparalleled.
Where does this leave me? Well, from there I build up layers of sound in Wavelab's montage feature, which allows me to stack layers simultaneously, modify volume levels in great detail and process them further if required. This is where a composition comes alive, or dies a slow death. If I've learned anything over the years it's that there's no point in spending four or more hours a day working intensively with audio at fairly high volume and in great detail. The ears become fatigued and musical judgement diminishes. This doesn't mean that you can't work on the piece, it's just that you spend more time thinking about the composition in the abstract, away from the actual sounds, a challenging but interesting process in itself but one which can lead to better decisions own the long run.
With this most recent composition I made two big mistakes, along with all the numerous little ones. First I began working with sounds identical to or very similar to sounds that I'd used before. This undermines an approach to music, a core of my practice, which requires a fresh investigation with each new work. Why it took me so long to realise the mistake is beyond me. Another mistake, which I identified as it happened and which led to a resolution of all the major problems, was that I began trawling through my archives looking for 'something else' or something 'more suitable'. That's when the penny dropped and from there I returned to some of the less prominent sounds in my original work. The principal sounds here were of a joiner fitting out the inside of a nearby shop (which acted as a resonant cavity) taken on the street opposite the Abbey walls which reflected and dispersed the sounds around the built environment.
Sometimes we do actually learn from our mistakes but not as fast or as well as we'd like.
Some people have been asking me about the making of a recent film, Is It Beautiful? (13:34) . The film is built around a road trip, actually lots of different road trips rolled into one. The childhood trip, the wayward adolescent trip, the lover's escape, the older person's Sunday drive. I filmed the road trip sections to look like a nostalgic memory-laden affective tripped-out journey through the hills and moors, rising up, winding and descending with the road itself. The A68 south of Jedburgh where I live does all this on a series of tight bends as it climbs up to the Carter Bar, the Border between Scotland and England.
I filmed it using 'the best camera in the whole world', a Fuji X-T3, and different lenses depending on the shot, a 35mm prime, a 90mm prime and a 55-200mm zoom. I tied different coloured gels over the lenses with an elastic hair band from my daughter's make-up box to simulate the Super-8 look that we've come to expect from 60s or 70s road trips, at least in my imagination. Then the shot of the Polaroid to complete the set. Why that decade or era? Well there was a time, maybe a moment, maybe a few years, when it seemed as if people meant what they said, that thing about peace and love and changing the world for the better, before it all turned to dust (like the time before that), a loop replayed with every new generation but with a greater sense of purpose if you lived through the particularly intense experience. So we all sat back in the car and flew away, listening to whatever soundtrack fitted the day.
There's actually more to the film than the road trip. It also dips into the themes of disappointment, the instability of signs, symbols and icons, conflicting ideas over land use, the problematic notion of borders and nationalism. The flags of Scotland and England, the beacon at the Border, formerly lit to warn of advancing armies, the Easter cross on the mound, the red flags warning trespassers of live firing at the missile range, the sickly yellows and greens clouding a land turned to sheep desert or military training ground. Then the references to three events in my life which dispelled much of my naivety about the world - the theft of some of the best music of a generation to embellish war footage, witnessing the pollution of a quiet valley, a march of bigotry and hatred which cynically hijacked the worlds' largest arts festival.
The music I played myself, a simple folky/country-rock chord progression on an overdriven electric guitar played through a valve amplifier (actually Pancho and Lefty by Townes van Zandt, something of a road movie in itself) and the sounds of a set of hand-made steel tube marimbas. I take no credit for the silences.
It all 'came to me' as one concept, probably bubbling away for years. Anyway it's out now and I hope you enjoy the film. Thanks for reading.
Is it Beautiful on Vimeo
Perhaps not so banal, though, if one turns from tourist maps to a map of operational and projected military installations in southern France. It will readily be seen that this vast area, which has been earmarked, except for certain well-defined areas, for tourism, for national parks - that is, for economic and social decline - is also destined for heavy use by a military which finds such peripheral regions ideal for its diverse purposes. These spaces are produced.
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space
Lord Glenamara My Lords, is the noble Viscount aware that if a choice is to be made, those of us who live in that area would much rather see an extension of military training in Otterburn rather than in the north Pennines area which is much more important than the remote area of Otterburn from the point of view of tourism?
Viscount Cranborne My Lords, I draw the noble Lord's attention to the declaration of commitment to the national parks made by the Ministry of Defence. I am sure the noble Lord is familiar with that document. As regards the second part of his question, it is the Government's policy to release land in national parks which becomes surplus to defence requirements. We shall give advance notice of any impending disposal of redundant land to national park authorities.
Lord Williams of Elvel …. It is perfectly possible that the noble Viscount might say that we should bomb the Brecon Beacons and shell Snowdonia where Ministry of Defence lands are within a national park.
Snippets from HL (House of Lords) Deb 08 December 1992 vol 541 cc85-8.
Perhaps the most important and possibly the least interesting aspect of electroacoustic composition is the provenance of sound sources. They're obviously important because without them you don't have any raw material but if too much is made about them they become fetishised and the work becomes about the objects or recordings and not about the eventual abstractions, modifications and transformations that produce make the eventual music, the latter being difficult to talk or write about (unlike the sources) or to generate images and other media that people might understand. But a photograph has its own value so here are some of the sound sources that have occupied me for the last few months, day after day, week after week (did I mention slow?).
Exciting? No. Apart from the frame drums and bristly toothbrushes which make a nice photo, the welding machine and oven are somewhat mundane. One could of course contextualise the interest in machines as a concern with the ethnography of technology but in all honesty I'm not in the least concerned with that here. At the time I heard and recorded these sounds I simply found them interesting and worthy of further examination.
Played well the frame drums or duffs are fine instruments but in my work I spend most of my initial preparations trying to eke out, often unconventionally, specific sounds for further treatment in this case the sounds of the skin being activated by wire brushes. Each duff has its own unique set of inner morphologies or sound-shapes determined by size, shape, mass and materials. The wire brushes tease out the sounds I wanted very well, offering shapes that ranged from the percussive to the quasi-melodic/harmonic as some of the activations released a rising harmonic series. The sounds of welding (in this project carried out by an actual welder) is somewhat predictable but there are all manner of subtleties as the metals and rods expand and contract, punctuated by near silences and the soft hiss of gases being released as the heat builds up.
So much for the initial recordings and I'll come to the oven sounds later but my last word on this first stage is that there is no rule that I've managed to set which determines how much time I should spend on this or that sound, then on the combinations, before it becomes evident that something isn't working as well as I thought it would. I therefore work slowly. My next activity involves two processes, both carried out in the digital domain, these being timestretching and filtering (or equalising) the recordings. That phase will form the subject of my next post on composition. Thanks for visiting.