Photo taken with a Chamonix 045F1 View Camera, using a Nikkor-SW 90mm f/8 lens, on Shanghai 100 film, and developed in a mix of Xtol and Rodinal.
Photo taken with a Chamonix 045F1 View Camera, using a Nikkor-SW 90mm f/8 lens, on Shanghai 100 film, and developed in a mix of Xtol and Rodinal.
Near a small brook in Wiltshire, an oak grows adjacent to the path leading upwards through fields of wheat in summer to the West Kennett Long Barrow. Hanging from its branches druids tie ribbons in thanks for good fortune or to celebrate a blessing.
Climbing the hill I fell into a reverie recalling a favourite oak that I would climb which grew in a local park near the playground as a child. It was shady in summer, and bare in winter, after losing its leaves and acorns in autumn. How I loved to fill my pockets with the acorns as a boy, and, even as a teenager collect them on my way to school to carve tiny faces in them with my pen knife. One day I discovered that nails had been driven into the playground oak to make it easier to climb. I recollect feeling wounded for the tree, and saddened by the harm inflicted into its bark.
On reaching the barrow, I returned from these reminisces to enter the ancient tomb. Inside flowers had been left and a few coins by druidic visitors. As you do, and hoping it would not be found, I left a coin on a high shelf in a dark corner in thanks for the blessings of being alive, having a wonderful partner and children, visiting the long barrow and neolithic henges, and for the wonder of oak trees and acorns.
All photographs taken using a Holga PC 120 on Ektar 100 film.
You are full of grace…
The street has its own message. Sometimes the shadowy silences hidden in alleyways and alcoves is punctuated by the voice of art. Elsewhere the bustle of crowds, and sounds of the city are erased by a message left on a wall from an often anonymous artist, that briefly brings moments of hope, joy, whimsy or insight, delivering us from our angst.
I wonder if the crowds queuing in Barcelona’s old city to enter the museums of famous artists such as Picasso view the messages gracing the streets with appreciative eyes. Visitors rush from one museum to another, hustle through the markets, or ramble down the famous boulevards with their hawkers, yet in the Ciutat Vella I felt myself slowly surrendering to its embrace.
In other hours, I reminisce now from afar of the homeless men who would greet me as I walked past Sant Pere de les Puelles with their dog lying on the steps of the basilica, the toy maker sitting on the curb, the art class quietly painting in the Plaça de Sant Agustí Vell, or a canto being sung by a busker advertising opera classes. From early in the morning to late at night, each hour brought its own mood and memory.
Glancing at the pavement, covers for the water mains have their own artistry, as do the embellishments of door knockers, street lamps, water troughs, and the reminder of workers on a cathedral door.
A city is more than its landmarks. It is its people. It is the quiet dignity that graces the street in unconditional love through the celebration of art. Each world has its own eternity to be graffitoed breaking down the walls that bound us, liberate, and remind us we are filled with grace.
Llenas eres de gracia – you are full of grace.
After visiting Socrates at the British Museum an idea took flight, perhaps it was a divine madness, I don’t know, but I pondered on his welfare wondering whether this ancient soul was happy, eudaimonic, located among his philosopher companions Antisthenes, Chrysippos and Epikouros , or grown tired of their company and would prefer to spend time elsewhere.
Given his preference for city life, being a lover of knowledge and having quipped that “landscapes and trees have nothing to teach me, only people do”, I contemplated whether he might have been better placed near the Parthenon Sculptures. At least he would be in the midst of onlookers and admirers, and could look forward to becoming mired in controversial discussion whether these famous marbles should be in London or Athens. He would I knew enjoy the rhetoric, the oratory aimed at different people and audiences.
On the other hand recalling Phaedrus, would he be tempted to leave the bounds of the museum to reside near Eros in the West End, or even visit Trafalgar Square with its famous column and economy of signs and significations.
While the plinth and thumb might serve as commentary on Brexit and a rejection of the world beyond, it occurred to me that in these columns Lacan had a point in his explication of The Meaning of the Phallus, “For it is to this signified that it is given to designate as a whole the effect of there being a signified, insamuch as it conditions any such effect by its presence as signifier.” Of course London has almost a surfeit of plinths, pillars and towers reaching upwards, celebrating fame and glory in the realm, creating a discourse which leads one to ask what is being elucidated here? Within the British Museum, an Egyptian antiquity depicts pharoanic authority and power through cartouches listing every dynasty that preceded a particular ruler, so are these relics, pillars, plinths, statues, columns and towers accoutrements signifying instead empire, the glory of monarchical rule, and through its enduring presence gives it legitimacy. Are we therefore cut off from the meaning in our own lives by the constant presence of regal significations across history and time, an imperium, which leave us to traffic memories of our own ordinariness in bondage.
Did I desire rather that the Antipodean tall poppy syndrome might be brought to bear? It is not that I am uncomfortable with fame, and the celebration of established artists, thinkers, scientists or warriors, and their contribution to civilisation, but there seems to be little acknowledgement in London of ordinary working men and women, of discontents and toilers who worked anonymously to make the city, and nation great. Although these heroes should be an inspiration, are these edifices just an indication that fame, elites and power serve to generate loyalty to the crown, and a government which is always in its service.
These musings might seem far from Socrates, yet I found it to be quite ironic that he was housed so close to the Rosetta Stone given his commentary on writing, and the discovery of letters which “will create forgetfulness in their learners’ souls because they will not use their memories; they will trust to external written characters and not remember of themselves. … As for wisdom, it is the reputation, not the reality, that you have to offer to those who learn from you; they will have heard many things and yet have received no teaching; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing, they will be tiresome company, having not acquired wisdom but the the show of wisdom.”
In fact he goes on to declare: “I cannot help feeling, Phaedrus, that writing has one grave fault in common with painting; for the creations of the painter have the attitude of life, and yet if you ask them a question they preserve a solemn silence. And the same may be said of books. You would imagine that they had intelligence, but if you require an explanation of something that has been said, they preserve one unvarying meaning.” And this seems to be the real problem, I can imagine for example, Bertrand Russell, who lived around the corner from the British Museum in Bloomsbury popping in to contemplate the problems of philosophy and deciding that since there was no explanation to be found in response from Plato, and because Socrates is silent, then perhaps their ideas and forms can instead determined to be universal. The idea has no defence. It is silent except for the unvarying meaning given in a book.
The spoken word however is graven on the soul of the learner who sits with the philosopher to learn and whose mind is thus given wings, whereas the “written word is properly no more than an image.” Can there any defence against the alleged omniscience of book derived knowledge, or the shows of wisdom that the celebration of fame in statuary represents, except other than to aspire to tread the path of acquiring the living word of knowledge, rather than being in the grip of ruminations or creating literary amusements as “memorials to be treasured against the forgetfulness of old age”!
I meditate on the bust of Socrates and know there can be no answers to my questions. He left no written works nor intended seemingly any to be left. Perhaps he might return 3,000 years after taking the hemlock on the chariot of reincarnation, only 500 years hence, but I will be long gone. Still, for the love of philosophy, a museum that claims to present human history to the world public in the context of global cultural identities, rather than just being a local museum in justification of retaining the Parthenon Sculptures, also has a responsibility to curate its artefacts according to universal ideas and philosophy, not just to classify exhibits according to regions or epochs along a timeline.
I look at the Parthenon Sculptures, the bust of Socrates, and think over this memoir to my own forgetfulness, and ask: What are we doing here?
All photos taken with an Olympus OM-2, using a Zuiko f/1.4 50mm lens, on Fuji Superia 400 and Kodak Colorplus 200. See also Phaedrus in the The Dialogues of Plato Volume 2 translated by Benjamin Jowett.
Nestled on a steep hill overlooking Granada sits the Alhambra with its red walled fortress and palaces. From its towers the distant snow covered ramparts of the Sierra Nevada are visible. The highest peak Mulhacén, is named after Abu I-Hasan Ali or Muley Hacen (in Spanish), a 15th century Emir of Granada who is believed by legend to be buried on its summit. Arriving by plane this peak of 3,478 metres (11,411 ft), the highest in Spain, confronts passengers before the descent into the valleys near Granada covered with mile upon mile of olive groves. After landing, cars and buses travel along the highways of modernity passed shopping malls until entering the bustling narrow streets of the old city, where one then climbs to find peace and serenity in an oasis of gardens and the Moorish palace at the Alhambra.
How then does one understand the Alhambra? Is it a place representing Islamic conquest, rule and surrender; a monument celebrating the triumph of Spanish unification; a court where Columbus sought finance and patronage before sailing to the New World beginning new conquests and empires; a place of politics, romance, intrigue, tales, and legends; an archeological site; a museum of design, architecture, engineering and hydrology; a site of botanical and horticultural inquiry: a place of religious inspiration, and an imagined community living now through history.
A book is a tactile thing. We touch it, we feel it, we read it. Paper has its own texture, when we are not being transported to other worlds, times, visions and places by the words printed across its pages, we can see the fibers, textures and ink of which the page is composed. Similarly, the Alhambra is felt, not just seen: its arches and vaulted domes of mocarabes, carving stalactites from empty space and creating intimate spaces: delicate arabesques framing windows, miradors, patios and oratories with views opening onto gardens or the city far below; intricate mosaics, and patterns etched into stone along with Arabic words, phrases and poems talking of God, and wisdom; doors and passages seemingly leading nowhere opening to courtyards or rooms; the ever present sound of water flowing from fountains; the scent of flowers; high walls and towers shielding the outside world from that hidden within, as well as commanding views and power; the interplay of light, shadow and colour both within the Nasrid Palace, Gardens and Generalife during the day and red glow as evening descends; and the relief against which this tactile experience of the Alhambra is felt, that captivates and transports one’s imagination to another time and place, when contrasted with the Palace of Emperor Charles that was added to the site with its brutalist style, in homage to classicism and Catholicism.
I can imagine the Emir in the Court of the Ambassadors receiving noble visitors, of supplicants entering through the Gate of Justice, the busy medina with its workers and traders adjacent to the Nasrid Palace, soldiers in the Alcazaba watching Granada or washing in the bath house, life in the royal residences, children running through the gardens, horticulture being developed in the Generalife shaping agricultural development in Andalusia, bells ringing from the Watch Tower telling farmers in the valley it was time to irrigate their crops, flowers blooming in summer, and the cold days of winter with an icy chill blowing from the Sierra Nevada. Finally, I see the last Emir departing with tears of sorrow for North Africa with the bones of his ancestors never to return, except for Muley Hacen buried on the highest peak of the Sierra Nevada. Those ancestors had built a beautiful palace and kingdom, which was ultimately peacefully surrendered by its last Moorish ruler to prevent its possible destruction.
On the bell gable of the Watch Tower, a plaque declares that on the 2nd January 1492 in the Christian era after “777 years de la domincion Arabe”, Catholicism was victorious under Ferdinand and Isabella. Of course, in less than 50 years the Inca Empire had been conquered in the New World, its culture brought to heel, its wealth stolen, most of its building and temples torn down to be rebuilt as cathedrals celebrating the Catholic Church, and later thousands upon thousands dying in Andean silver mines financing economic growth, wars and empire. Ironically, recalling the Inca terraces, I am reminded that they too were horticulturalist and hydrologists that experimented with improving crops in relation to their environments and developing irrigation systems.
Standing at the Alhambra looking 500 years back to 1492, or the 777 years that the Moors ruled in southern Spain their history seems so far far away, and time passed slowly bringing us forward through epochs of competing European discoveries, trade and empires consolidated under absolute monarchs, to the world of today where there have been global conflagrations, and the speed of technology and economies of scale bring us closer together. Although time and history seems to pass slowly, change perhaps is actually swift and sudden, with events having their own momentum or impetus. Islamic conquest spread swiftly, and equally the victory of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, and subsequent conquest of the New World was equally cataclysmic in sweeping away the histories of other peoples.
Technologies change worlds, the galleon, cannons and muskets meant armadas were able to establish dominions in far off lands. Today, information technology and digitisation, has swept away inventions and created new economies, through changes that fifty years ago seemed to be only fantasy or science fiction. Books are no longer bought physically but are read online, whilst images are mostly captured electronically although I still like to make photographs using film. Even photography is a medium that has only existed around 150 years before displacing arts such as painting and drawing. The reporting of news and events is no longer local but spreads globally at the click of a button, and goods from one country can be purchased in another through the internet. The market is no longer in the medina, or protected by the shadow of the Alhambra, a castle or monarch, but instead like most transactions exist in cyberspace.
How then do we view and represent the Alhambra? Is it as a series of images inhabiting our mindscape, momentary memories, that the unconscious will recover with the passage of time and emotion, revealing pictures as the remainder of a holiday like the empty fragments of shells worn by the tides, or are these images, these photographs ordered by theme and content, journeys of inquiry and imagination, the tactile reminder of a place that we read, and are touched by.
As I reflect on the Alhambra, and my passage through it, I remember two Arabic phrases that greeted visitors on the walls of the Nasrid Palace, Everything that you own comes from God, and, Enter and fear not ask to ask for justice, for you will find it. Perhaps too history, and the communities we imagine inhabiting the past, are never really owned and we should not fear to enter, because in these special places we find ourselves.
All photographs taken using an Olympus OM-2, G. Zuiko 50mm f/1.4 lens on Kodak Portra 800, Fuji Superia 400 and Fuji Superia 100.
It felt like the sun had barely risen, but I’d had breakfast, hopped on the Tube, got my rail tickets, bought a latte, visited a deserted Platform 9 3/4 at Kings Cross Station, and was soon on the 7:15am express to Cambridge, where the magic really does happen…
Cambridge is not just a university, or another English city nestled in green countryside, but a place of history, romance, learning and legend. Every step, every place, every sight, has a story or name that inspires one’s imagination: whether it is link to the War of the Roses, or espying the initials of Henry VIII & Anne Boleyn together in King’s College Chapel that had escaped erasure; the clock that eats minutes, and worm holes leading to alternate realities in space time; gravestones in church yards of poets, fellows and members of secret societies; hints of spy rings and the presence of bohemian idealism; advancements in science and medicine leading to Nobel prizes; and, the quiet of study and contemplation.
Unexpectedly visiting London, after Barcelona, I touched base with internet photography friends in England suggesting that we meet up for a day of shooting, perhaps at Brick Lane. My friend Judith, was quite keen (adamant even) that I should visit Cambridge, and also soon had Juliette from Stansted and Alison from Leeds on their way as well.
Arriving at Cambridge, and after exchanging greetings, we headed off for a walking tour around the town and some of the colleges, with Judith as guide. Highlights included visiting King’s College Chapel, and St John’s College.
After lunch we visited the Ascension Parish Burial Ground where many well known former Cambridge fellows are buried. Judith had promised to show me the gravestone of one of my favourite modern philosophers and Cambridge Apostle, Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Leaving the churchyard we headed out to Grantchester, with its meadows and Orchard popularised by the Neo-Pagan group of Rupert Brooke, Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Bertrand Russell, E.M. Forster and Wittgenstein. As it was a fine Saturday afternoon, with exams finishing, many students were enjoying picnics, swimming or punting on the River Cam, or the Granta as it is also known.
Of course nothing says being in England more than an ale at a pub, followed by dinner, which is perhaps how all meet ups should conclude, or be celebrated. A little of the magic was captured with my Olympus OM-2 and Zuiko 50mm f1.4 lens, on some expired Kodak 200 film.
Everywhere there are reminders of time. The sun rises and sets, tides come in and out at all hours of the day and night, the moon passes through its phases, seasons are marked by solstices and equinoxes, and the movement of constellations across the sky witnesses the passing of seconds and minutes, into days and years. Flowers bloom, leaves fall, life comes and go.
It might have been halfway to low tide that it was abandoned, but when I arrived the flood tide was reaching its peak. Not far from the water’s edge I looked down and espied a wrist watch, neatly fold on its band with mother of pearl face reflecting the sky.
The place was deserted, and the next large wave might cast it into a crevice to be lost forever. I looked out to sea macabrely half expecting that a body might be floating or a person might be swimming distantly to a futile future. Gratified that the sea was empty as the rocks of people, I determined that finder’s law must apply and saved the timepiece.
Temporality and its markers hasten the prescience that mortality means becoming a memory lost to time, like a missing watch suspends our capacity to observe moments drifting past. The possibility of death after learning I had cancer, did not make me believe that life was vanishing before my eyes, but rather that I would wash with each passing year from the memories of others.
Death and its shadow never seems far away. I have been always rushing to do things, or defend things, and have been fearful of passing. Phrases such as “walking on” or “swimming beyond” are more appealing euphemisms to me. I am less worried about eternity’s breath now, although some things make me anxious. It is good to slow and take a breath. The world isn’t going away. Kilimanjaro and the Himalayas will still be there. I might never see them, but this feeling I was fading out of history and would soon become a lost memory troubles me less. I feel a lot more assured that I might be forgotten, but perhaps a little less slowly than I anticipated. Time to let go.
A friend recently wrote to me: “What you will take away from your time at work [and life] will be the satisfaction that you made a difference in a great many lives. There are people who will remember that you once helped them when it counted, and that made their lives possible.”
Recently our son graduated, and daughter earlier this year. He will be 25 in February and she 24 in the middle of the year. I am feeling a lot older and that life passes, moves forward and eclipses us. I am enjoying watching my wisdom seem to grow or acceptance of ageing a bit more at times.
It is time to make some more photos.
All photos taken at Bass Point with a Chamonix 045F1 View Camera, Nikkor-SW 90mm f/8 and Rodenstock Apo-Sironar-S 150mm lenses, and Shanghai 100 film and developed in PMK.