Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Spring comes to Swanscombe Marsh

Typical April weather with a stiff breeze, intermittent sunshine and scudding clouds transformed the marsh on my last visit there two weeks ago. The sun lifted the palette of soft yellows and greens, highlighting the buds bursting on the bushes and bringing alive the reed beds. Occasional patches of yellow flowers nestled on the beds of the stream and the wind rippled the surface of the water in the pools, the reflected sky turning them a deep blue. The whole place felt scrubbed and fresh and my winter cobwebs were blown away. I came away feeling uplifted.

Whilst pottering around the little creek where the boats are moored I met one of the inhabitants - a man who has been building a houseboat there for about a year. He gave me a bit of background information about the place: officially a boat club, in reality it is a place where men come to tinker with their boat building and renovating projects. He was a local man and had previously worked on the river for years, but had only recently been aware of the existence of the creek.

The boats are in a variety of states - some only worth scrap like the huge barge waiting for a tide high enough to float it and be taken away, and some like the battleship built from scratch. One or two people live there but the majority visit off and on. It has a delightfully dilapidated, ramshackle air but you can easily imagine that the people using it view it as a sort of haven, an escape from work and the chores of everyday life. What will happen to it if and when the theme park gets built is not known but I would hazard a guess that Paramount would  prefer to have a neat and tidy sanitised version!

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Chasing Sunshine

Things have cheered up considerably since my last post - the sun has come out, the buds are on the trees and I saw my first butterfly today! We have been starved of sunshine for so long that I find myself wandering around the house observing patches of light as they dance around the walls and doors, casting strange shadows and dagger-like reflections.  It's like some strange, ghostly presence has taken possession of the house....

Monday, 15 April 2013

Spleen and bile

Looking back to my first post I notice I was full of hope that writing this blog would reignite my passion for photography and give me a new purpose in my image-making.  How wrong can you be! Spring is traditionally the time for stock-taking and looking forward with renewed enthusiasm.  What went wrong?

Perhaps it is the longest, coldest winter in living memory from which we are only just now emerging. Despite the welcome sunshine, the landscape still looks dreary and uninviting and the garden is still wearing its winter widow's weeds. Perhaps it is the bout of flu which laid me low over Easter and has wrung every last drop of enthusiasm for life out of me, leaving me feeling lethargic and apathetic. Perhaps it is just a feeling of irritation with the world in general, and the art world in particular - the endless babble of social media, self-promoting egos and barrage of stupid opinions are enough to drive anyone mad.  As if any of it really mattered....

These self-portraits using inanimate objects around the house express my current state of mind and give physical form to my bile. However, before you call the therapist, please be aware that they are the first photographs I have taken for some time so the very fact that I picked my camera up today must mean that I am on the road to recovery!

 Self-portrait as vegetable peelings

 Self-portrait as used tea bag

Self portrait as limp dishrag

 Self-portrait as roast dinner leftovers

 Self portrait as used toilet roll

Self portrait as grubby dressing gown

Sometimes it does you good to get rid of your spleen - I feel better already! (No vegetables were harmed in the making of these photographs)

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

In No Great Hurry

Sub-titled 13 Lessons in Life with Saul Leiter, this documentary shown on BBC 4 last week gave a fascinating insight into the life and working methods of one of my favourite photographers. Leiter has to be one of the most self-effacing photographers on the planet. In a world of hype and self-promotion, he came across as delightfully free from ego. His opening words give some idea of the modesty of the man: "I am not carried away by the greatness of Mr. Leiter. He is a minor figure and does not deserve to have a story about him!" Possibly slightly tongue-in-cheek, he nonetheless claims to be unambitious and in his 90th year, happy to continue taking photographs in the manner he has always done, stalking the streets of New York and turning his camera on whatever pleases him.

Leiter is known as one of the pioneers of colour photography, turning to colour in the early 1950s when most serious photography was in black and white. Colour was definitely looked down upon, and with its associations with commercial and fashion photography, there was a certain snobbishness prevalent at the time which meant that to be taken seriously in art circles, photography most definitely had to be in black and white. Yet Leiter characteristically denies his importance as a pioneer, and makes the point that "if you know enough about photography, you realise that nothing is really that new". This is something that the contemporary photography world, with its insistence on novelty above all else, would do well to remember. Leiter did in fact make a living from doing fashion photography for Harper's Bazaar as well as his own personal work and did not, like many photographers, consider this to be beneath him, but rather looked upon it as an extension of his vision. He was part of the New York photography scene in the 1950s and 60s, but despite taking part in an exhibition at MOMA, preferred to keep a low profile and has only become more generally well-known in recent years, mainly due to the success of what he endearingly calls his 'little book' - Early Color.

Whilst peevishly taunting the film-maker that he may not after all, allow the documentary to be shown, throughout the film Leiter, accompanied by his trusty assistant Margit, sorts through his cluttered New York apartment piled high with boxes and boxes of slides and prints, paintings, ephemera and memories - the result of a long life spent doing exactly what he pleased - namely photographing and painting. He started life as a painter and was associated with the Abstract Expressionist school, and then turned to photography. His unusual eye for colour was certainly honed by his painting skills and there is definitely a painterly, almost abstract quality to his work.  It was interesting to hear his thoughts on the act of photographing - where so much photography these days is planned or staged, he prefers to go out with his camera and photograph what he comes across, without any preconceived notions of what it is he wants to do, tending to react to what he finds. Simply put "You have a camera, you take a picture. You're not quite sure what you get....."

What you get is simply beautiful - this is not street photography in the strict sense of the word, though most of the work was done on the street.  Leiter does not adopt the confrontational style of the typical New York street photographer. He presents instead a fragmented and ambiguous world, an intimate 'urban pastoral' in the midst of the busiest city on earth. The photographs are luminous, expertly composed, often shot through glass with multi-faceted reflections, little snatches of life on the street with often a bright patch of some colour going on in a corner. Art critic Roberta Smith wrote in 2005: "Mr Leiter was a photographer less of people than of perception itself. His painter's instincts served him well in his emphasis on surface, spatial ambiguity and a lush, carefully calibrated palette. But the abstract allure of his work doesn't rely on soft focus, a persistent often irritating photographic ploy, or the stark isolation of details, in the manner of Aaron Siskind or early Harry Callahan. Instead, Mr Leiter captured the passing illusions of everyday life with a precision that might almost seem scientific, if it weren't so poetically resonant and visually layered."

Leiter's thoughts on beauty in art are worth repeating here, mainly as beauty as a concept seems to have fallen out of favour and what is miserable, wretched and squalid is now the norm.
"I believe, if I may be so old-fashioned, that there is such a thing as a search for beauty, a delight in the nice things in the world, and I don't think that one should have to apologise for it."
Amen to that!

All photographs Saul Leiter.  Further information about the film including a trailer can be found here.  If you get the chance to see it, you won't be disappointed - it's available to view on BBC iPlayer.