Thursday, August 19, 2004


I'll be away for the next week, staying here:

Hoping to find a better balance in this life which sometimes seems in a rather precarious equilibrium. Spending some time on things and with people that matter.

See y'all in a while...

Tuesday, August 17, 2004

Forgotten paths 

Every photo is unique in it’s way, but there’s a special piquancy about a photo that can’t ever be repeated because the world has moved on, especially when it has passed into a new era. Take the cranes lining the banks of the Thames (easier to see if you click the picture to enlarge it). Even 35 years ago when I took this photo they were mostly standing idle – the days of London as a thriving port were almost over, and one by one the docks and wharves were closing. Nowadays the cranes have long since gone. Some memories of the old port still remain though; although the riverside warehouses stood semi-derelict for a while, many have been reborn as character apartments for the well-heeled, and instead of cargo vessels plying their trade on the waterway, the Thames now carries water-taxis to take these new-style traders to their city offices.

Much else has changed in the intervening years, some of it for the better. (Aside: why should it feel so surprising, so unexpected, when change turns out to be positive?) Once, the pollution was so bad that hardly any fish survived and it was routine for anyone who was unfortunate enough to fall into the Thames to have their stomach pumped. Now however, salmon have returned to the river. And at about the time this photo was taken, the old London bridge built in 1831 was being dismantled stone by stone ready to be shipped over to the Arizona desert. The world moves on.

Sometimes old pathways are dug up, concreted over and towering new cities built over them; such roads can only thereafter be travelled in imagination, never again with feet. But sometimes the track of old pathways, although abandoned and neglected, can be found still, if you know where to look. Clear away the extraneous growth of the years and a way once forgotten may be revealed.

I never wanted to be a writer, never had that urge, never had those dreams. I didn’t not want to be one; the possibility simply never occurred to me. (I suppose in reality it still hasn’t…) So I was a little bemused to find myself in a circle of bloggers who clearly have a powerful drive to write, whose dreams are to write. I think there’s a point in the development of an idea, when that idea becomes sufficiently verbal that writing about it becomes possible. Until that point it’s a concept only, a glimpse of a shadow of a phantom. Most of my ideas never make it past that point. If they could, I’d like to write about them. But until they do, the words remain a struggle, reluctant to be dragged out of me.

But I’ve loved taking photos almost as long as my hands were capable of loading a roll of film and holding a camera steady. Like the Thames of the photo, my first camera , dating from my seventh birthday, belongs to a bygone era. With it’s black bakelite body and spools for 127 roll film it looks now like something you’d find in a museum. Following that came a Kodak Brownie 44A (a step up from the original Brownie) which was just good enough to start taking slides, and even got me a first place in a junior photographic competition.

By 14 I’d graduated to my first ‘proper’ 35mm camera – a secondhand Voigtlander Vito C, with which I took all the photos on this post. I still have all these old cameras; the oldest and simplest are still in working order although the shutter of the Voigtlander is stuck now. Some of my best photos were taken in those years and on that camera, which had manual everything, a separate hand-held exposure meter, and not a battery in sight.

This is another favourite from those years – the original slide (on Kodak Ektachrome 64 for anyone who is interested) has faded a bit now and needed some tweaking on the computer to restore the contrast, but this version is much as I remember it, a secret profile view from the wings of the stage as the star faces the audience assembled on Ludgate Hill:

As I went through school years, somewhere along the line I absorbed as though it were truth the fallacy that photography wasn’t academic, wasn’t a ‘proper’ job and was therefore in some way an inferior subject of serious study, as were all forms of art. Fine for a hobby, but not something for me to pursue as a career. Plus of course you had to be ‘artistic’, whatever that meant, and I believed I wasn’t. All complete bollocks of course, but what did I know then? So it remained as a passing interest only.

One vacation from university I even built my own black-and-white enlarger, using the bellows and lens from an old folding camera, and the condensing lenses – huge pieces of glass - and main lens from another ancient enlarger, both bought for pennies from jumble sales. I was very proud of that enlarger, especially the ventilation and light trapping in the lamp housing, built from a catering size tin of coffee. The design was entirely my own, created around the materials I had available – mostly scrap (see list below). I think the light bulb was the only thing I bought new. There’s a skill there I didn’t know at the time that I had – seeing the potential in materials, how they can be used together creatively.

But I digress. The point is that I loved photography but for years ignored it and let the pathway become overgrown, covered in weeds. Now I’m clearing away the weeds again, beginning to tread a path nearly abandoned for 30 years. Who knows, I may even be able to string some words together to go with the pictures.

As well as an awakening artistic desire, there’s cold logic behind this too. It doesn’t do me a lot of good to pine for the hills and mountains when they’re hundreds of miles away and I only get to spend a handful of days a year in their company. I need to find a more accessible way of nourishing my soul, and I think photography just might be it.

Oh yeah, that competition I won. One thing I forgot to mention – I was the only entrant… ;-)

Westminster, on the same day 35 years ago. No moored barges there these days…

Recipe for home-built enlarger
- part of old kitchen table top (Formica covered)
- length of scaffold pole
- shorter length of slightly larger diameter scaffold pole
- heavy duty foot from a ‘60/70s mainframe computer cabinet
- catering size coffee tin
- jam jar lid
- small aluminium aspirin tub
- various aluminium extrusion offcuts: H-section, T-section, U-section (every budding enlarger fabricator should always keep a selection of handy aluminium extrusion offcuts…)
- handle from an old rubber stamp
- odd shaped but useful looking brass block (small)
- control knob from old radio (large)
- various oddments of steel rod, aluminium sheet etc
- nuts, bolts, washers, self-tapping screws as located on floor, lying around on bench, kept in random assortments in tins, jars etc
- vital optics from ancient enlarger that looks old enough to have been powered by candles
- almost as ancient bellows camera, to provide focusing mechanism and shutter
- anything else lying around that has an interesting shape/finish and might look good when incorporated in the design

Take the above ingredients, a selection of hand tools, an impoverished student (aren’t they all..) with time on his hands, and a garden shed, mix together well, and wait...

Friday, August 13, 2004


I didn't have to think too hard about which shot to pull from the archive for this week's Photo Friday theme...

This is Ullswater, in the English Lake District. I spent a very peaceful few days in 2002 camped just a few yards from the spot where this was taken. Ok, they were an active few days too, but they were peacefully active, if you see what I mean. This sort of environment promotes an inner peace that even hard physical activity doesn't dispel.

It Matters 

So. It does matter. And I’d almost managed to convince myself that it didn’t. But if I’d succeeded, it would have been an unfortunate mistake.

I woke at about 4.00am feeling a deep disappointment, like an ill-defined awareness that an opportunity to attain something precious had been taken away from me. I couldn’t place it at first; it was just an isolated feeling that I couldn’t connect with any particular event as the source. The kind of inner ache a child feels without yet understanding why he feels it, making it all the more unbearable for him. Then as I swam sluggishly into semi-consciousness, I knew. It matters.

It matters that I wont be taking my usual week of camping in the hills this summer. Yeah, I know, pathetic. You thought it was something big. But it’s not the camping for it’s own sake, nor the mountains for theirs, not even the close-to-nature experience. They are all important to me, but not so vital that I can’t do without them. This is something deeper, more fundamental than that. It’s losing the one week of the year when I can be completely myself, no constraints, no demands, no compromises, no pretence. A week of utter selfishness doing what I want to do, and being who I want to be. Maybe even being who I am. One week that makes the other 51 a little more bearable. The thought strikes me out of the blue that every photo I’ve posted here, in fact pretty much every photo I’ve taken in the last 5 years has come from one of those weeks.

I thought I was being unduly negative when I came up with a whole string of “yes, buts” attached to the main holiday week: yes, I’ll still be spending time among the hills; yes, I’ll be able to do some walking; yes, I’ll be able to take some photos; yes, I may even get some rock climbing done. But no, I wont have that space to be free. Or more accurately, I wont feel as if I do. That may be a significant distinction; I’m not sure. The big 'but' is that those activities will be contained within a framework of domesticity, neatly shrunk and packaged into available timeslots in the schedule.

I love my family; I know I will truly enjoy this week spent exclusively with them. I’m also just beginning to learn to love myself as well, learning to value time spent at ease with being myself. But I haven’t yet learned how to combine these two.

It may hurt a little, and it may be self-pity, but it was worth waking at 4.00am for, and worth taking the train to work instead of cycling so that I could think this through. At least I now have a better understanding of why these times in the hills feel so important to me. Amazing really that it had never occurred to me this way before.

This is learning I should be able to apply. Unlike the child who doesn’t know the source of his inner ache and so remains subject to it, powerless to do anything about it, I at least know why, which puts me in a position to transcend it. I guess I should say thank you to my subconscious for bringing it to my attention.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

We don't really get it yet... 

From Ming:

"It is so easy to forget how magical and amazing life is. Not just my life, but the life in nature. You drop a seed in the ground, water it a bit, and the sun shines, and this seed strangely knows how to turn into a big plant, and to reproduce and make more, ad infinitum..."

"...We know how to poke around and learn to exploit something, by seeing what happens if we poke it different ways. You know, like psychiatry by cutting off different parts of the brain and seeing what happens. But we're very ignorant on how to actually make any of the stuff we're messing with. We haven't succeeded in making a single cell, despite having taken many apart to see what they consisted of. We don't really get it yet. Life, on many levels."

We see it every day, but that doesn't make it any less amazing.

Wednesday, August 11, 2004

Running on empty 

It’s been a strange week. Outwardly quite normal; everything fine so long as I stick to simple routine and don’t try anything that demands much more than mere physical presence. Basic life support systems are functioning fine apparently, but higher order systems seem to have become largely non-operational. Some kind of auto-shutdown routine kicked in; simple tasks are no problem at all, but anything that requires any kind of inner resource beyond the merely computational causes the system to hang, so I’m left rather like Hal, the computer in 2001, when his higher functions had to be disabled.

Spiritual/emotional reserves finally hit empty. They’ve been running dangerously low for quite a while now; I think it was playing for the show the week before last that finally drained the very last drop. Four consecutive days of dashing between work, home and the venue without a moment to catch my breath or grab a proper meal. Normally those extra demands wouldn’t have mattered, but I didn’t realised just how depleted the reserves had got – not until they ran out. I’ve been saying I needed to find ways to nourish my soul, but didn’t do anything about it. I guess the lesson is that that need was no mere abstraction; neglect the soul and the side effects verge on the physical.

At least I finally managed to get a short vacation sorted. We’ve rented a cottage at Ambleside in the English Lake District for a week. It’ll be the first time we’ve been away as a complete family for maybe five years, and quite probably the last time ever, now that the kids are pretty much grown up. This was my daughter’s plan – and it does give me a certain warm glow that they all still like the idea of doing things together as a family. I don’t think I’ve ever said anything here about my family since this is a personal blog, but so you get the picture we have two lads, age 20 and 22, and a daughter of 18. They’re an independent and well-travelled brood - they’ve each already had their own trips here and there this year, some near, some far.

There is one teeny tiny cloud on the immediate horizon though. I need to get this one out of my system otherwise I’ll just be setting myself up for disappointment. I’d hoped to go up there early with one of my lads and spend a few days camping and hillwalking. To have some time to spend being truly in the landscape, at one with it; to smell the early morning freshness, touch the dew on the grass, gaze at the mountains over breakfast; to live with earth and rock and grass and water as constant companions; to sleep with only a couple of thin layers of nylon between me and the stars. It’s looking unlikely now that we can do that. Ah well… Like I say, I just need to get that disappointment out of my system so that I can enjoy the break without feeling I’m missing out on something.

Sunday, August 08, 2004


I've been waiting for an excuse to post this one...

This is my idea of a perfect day, and Photo Friday's theme this week is perfection. So the connection is a bit tenuous, a bit individualist? Hey, it's my blog... :-)

Incidentally, you can find Garry, who's the one in front of the camera, here

Later edit:
This, by the way, was the view in the opposite direction (top pic of the pair).

Monday, August 02, 2004

Right time, right place 

It had been a long day. An ascent of Ben Nevis, carrying full winter gear as the last 1,500 feet of ascent were on snow and ice, but on a warm day for early March so that most of the gear ended up being carried in rucksacks, where the load is most keenly felt. We took a leisurely drive back from Fort William to Glencoe, stopping once or twice for photo calls looking out over Loch Linnhe. By the time we reached the Ballachulish bridge just before Glencoe we were pretty tired, and had it not been for the row of photographers lined up at the end of the bridge, we might not have noticed the view out to sea that had been behind us until the right turn a few hundred yards back. Following the line of their lenses, tiredness evaporated instantly:

We pulled into a handy side turning, grabbed cameras, and ran, preparing camera settings as we went. The sun was already disappearing fast, precisely into the v-notch between the hills on the far side of the loch. In a few seconds we ran off as many shots as we could, four cameras between the two of us.

In a matter of moments, the sun had gone. It didn't take long to realise that this was probably one of only a handful days in the year when this shot was possible. Maybe even one of the only two days in the year, one in spring, one in autumn. Not only was this the right day, but the atmospheric conditions were near-perfect. Some of the other photographers there looked pretty well prepared, with multiple cameras on tripods and cases of gear spread out on the ground. Presumably they knew in advance the course the sun would take down into that notch. If we'd been thirty seconds later, we'd have missed it. If we'd have been more than ten minutes earlier, we might not have realised what was coming.

Fortune smiled, and for one of those rare occasions we were by pure chance in just the right place at just the right time. And with cameras ready.

[This one's for Photo Friday 's current theme of Sunset.]