Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The world scrubbed clean

After weeks of dismal weather, the sun showed its face this morning and it was a pleasure to go out.  With the wind whipping the branches of the trees and the clouds scudding past, it felt as though the world had been scrubbed clean. I set off for a trudge round the fields - still very wet underfoot but the bright sunshine lifted the spirits and there was a hint of spring with the first snowdrops and celandines tentatively showing their faces.

Saturday, 26 January 2013


So often we look forward to an event, exhibition, or eagerly awaited new film or publication only to be let down by the reality. Conversely, some things we have little or no expectations of, either because we are unfamiliar with the artist in question or because we may even actively dislike their work. In these cases, we can be pleasantly surprised and even inspired.

A couple of weeks ago I spent a few days in London, rushing around trying to catch all the exhibitions I had been meaning to see before they close at the end of the month. Despite the best of intentions, it is usually the case that things are left to the last minute, as happens with most things in my life! I had been looking forward to Seduced by Art: Photography Past and Present at the National Gallery as it deals with the two genres of art I am most interested in - photography and painting - specifically the influence of the latter on the former and the elastic and fluid nature of the relationship between the two. I'm not saying it was a bad exhibition - just that I came out feeling rather underwhelmed. Perhaps some of it is down to the exhibition space in the basement of the Sainsbury wing - a cramped and rather claustrophobic place, the walls painted in dark colours with no natural light. It works for some exhibitions but I felt the walls crowding in on me as I jostled to see the work on display.

This was the National Gallery's first major exhibition of photography exploring both early photography from the 19th century and the work of contemporary photographers, presented together with historical paintings displayed according to the traditional genres of still life, landscape, portraiture and nudes. The trouble with this approach is that so often it doesn't really demonstrate a dialogue between the two at all - it is totally one-sided. The curators have gone out of their way to show that photography takes its inspiration from painting yet failed to demonstrate that it is very much a two-way process. There is no mention of the widespread use of the photographic image in painting nor any of the debate about photography's effect on the history of art. Surely the reality is that photography, just like all other forms of art - literature, music, sculpture, painting - is concerned with the same universal themes of love, life and death which have been the main source of inspiration for all artistic endeavour throughout the centuries.

Many of the photographs involving contemporary restaging of paintings border on the kitsch or in the case of 19th century photographers, display large doses of Victorian sentimentality. The relationship between painting and photography is better illustrated when the photographer, rather than trying to mimic or restage a painting, instead reinvents the subject matter to say something relevant to contemporary life, as in Luc Delahaye's massive US Bombing on Taliban Positions which chillingly represents modern warfare without showing any human presence. It was hung beneath a panorama of a 19th century battlefield complete with soldiers and cannons and the juxtaposition of the two spoke volumes.

The Battle of Jemappes 1821 by Emile-Jean-Horace Vernet

US Bombing on Taliban Positions 2001 by Luc Delahaye

I was particularly taken with a photograph by Finnish photographer Jurma Puranen of Goya's painting of the Duke of Wellington. The photograph shows the surface of the painting transformed by reflections of light, bringing to our attention hidden details, the marks of the brush and craquelure, intensifying the colours and the areas of light and shade, revealing and concealing different elements.  It is a fine example of the transformative power of photography - taking a subject a making something new with it. 

The Duke of Wellington, 1812-14 by Francisco Goya

Shadows and Reflections (After Goya), 2011 by Jorma Puranen

It was a major drawback that many of the paintings on show were a rather undistinguished selection. The opening room featured arguably the most dramatic display of large-scale photographs - Jeff Wall's The Destroyed Room, Tom Hunter's Death of Coltelli and Sarah Jones' The Drawing Studio - all inspired by Delacroix' magnificent painting The Death of Sardanapalus. Instead of the original, all we got to see was a small lacklustre copy of the great painting by a little-known artist - hardly guaranteed to inspire anyone! All in all, a show of mixed parts and missed opportunities, yet for all that, it is always good to see photography exhibitions of this size and scope. I can't help wondering though what purpose is served by this endless comparing and contrasting of the two artistic genres. Photography is well able to stand on its own two feet without any outside help!

 The Death of Sardanapalus 1827 by Eugene Delacroix

 The Death of Coltelli 2009 by Tom Hunter

 The Drawing Studio 2008 by Sarah Jones

The Destroyed Room, 1978 by Jeff Wall

The National Gallery, 1989 by Thomas Struth

 The Rosy Wealth of June, 1886 by Henri Fantin-Latour

Blow Up: Untitled 5, 2007 by Ori Gersht

 Signs of the Times, England, 1991 by Martin Parr

 Mr and Mrs Andrews, 1750 by Thomas Gainsborough

I deliberately avoided reading any reviews of the show before I went, so was surprised to see afterwards how varied they were, ranging from delight to ambivalence to outright vitriol (no prizes for guessing which critic this is!) For those of you who have seen the exhibition, you will no doubt have made up your own minds. For those of you who haven't, you'll just have to take my word for it!

Thursday, 24 January 2013

More snow

Had enough of the snow now!   Here are some photos taken on a brief walk between snow flurries  - thought I'd better get out with my camera before the predicted thaw sets in at the weekend and we get back to soggy brown fields.....

Monday, 21 January 2013

New Work

"All photographs are memento mori" 
 Susan Sontag, On Photography

Some new work I have been doing over the last few weeks.  This is the start of a new project which I will be engaged on over the course of the coming year. The aim is to combine my landscape photography with my memorial work - a kind of memorial within the landscape. As yet untitled, and fluid in intention and scope, the idea is to give form to the act of walking, thinking and remembering, exploring the concept of the photograph as memorial, as well as charting the changing seasons and weather and their effect on the landscape. With these interventions in the landscape the aim is not so much to offer a narrative but to show the uncanny effects of encountering objects out of their normal context, emphasising the power that an object may hold over us.

"In the experience of walking, each step is a thought. You can't escape yourself."
 Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

All photographs shot with a Hasselblad on black and white film and scanned. The project has its roots in earlier work which you can see here

Sunday, 20 January 2013


I always say I love the snow yet when it comes, I'm reluctant to venture outside.  Looking out the window, I see a sky heavy and featureless as the snow falls in fine flakes.  It's not tempting me to step out! Inside it's warm and snug - the perfect excuse to settle down and watch the world transform itself through the window. It's not long before the garden attracts a variety of wildlife visitors in search of food.....just a shame that my zoom lens is in London!

Friday, 18 January 2013


Complete white-out today so I'm not venturing out.  Here are some images from a couple of days ago instead....

A hoar frost covers all the trees and bushes and fog blankets the landscape.  No wind stirs the branches and no birdsong is to be heard - the countryside is still and silent under its shroud.  I make a quick foray outside to record this strange land and return with feet and hands frozen like blocks of ice! However, I'm not complaining - it makes a welcome change from the weeks of rain and sodden, muddy fields.