Saturday, February 28, 2009

transatlantic indians

I really wasn't expecting to see Minnehaha and Hiawatha outside Charing Cross Station... it turned out that they were taking part in a Monopoly-board themed pub crawl (presumably in aid of charity?) and that the dress code was Cowboys and Indians.   If I'd not been doing other things (like going to the G. F. Watts exhibition at the Guildhall), I'd have followed the locations - Piccadilly and the Old Kent Road, Mayfair and Paddington station - for those of you unfamiliar with the British Monopoly Board, it's based on London, and not, mysteriously, on Atlantic City.

They were bizarre enough in themselves, as a sight - but their account of how they came to be dressed like that made it much better - and provided an object lesson for what we were saying about documentary in class last week - that talking to one's subjects, and providing narrative that goes over and beyond what's apparent from the picture, can be a Good Thing.

Other photos on FB - including some especially fetching Selfridges shop windows...

Friday, February 27, 2009

the thames

This is under Waterloo Bridge, and is here by way of homage to Roni Horn, whose show I've just seen at Tate Modern - a show of sparse, clear beauty, of greys and golds and whites and spaces, of thought made concrete (or glass, or steel) - it was a show that made you appreciate each object or image both for its innate self and also for all that it made one think about.   One of the real treats of the exhibition was seeing her Thames pieces - just clear, or rather deeply murky stretches of water, with no banks or boats or piers, just littered with tiny footnote numbers that link (in non-representation fashion) to meditations on water, fluidity, Our Mutual Friend, deep darkness, suicides in the river, viscosity, and Heart of Darkness - the blackest, snakeist version of the Thames that there is.   And this images are in a airy 4th floor gallery, overlooking, where else, the Thames.

It's fun being a tourist in one's own home town (a few more images up on FB)...

And, in a footnote to yesterday's posting, my father reminds me that as a small girl, I was fascinated by wrecking balls and cranes, demolishing what was still war-damaged London (and one of my favorite books when I was three, for the record, was, indeed, Steve the Crane).

Too late, alas, to write more.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

documenting the economy?

Now, I have absolutely no proof that the asbestos-filled abandoned frat house that's being demolished in Union St as I write is a victim of the economy - but it is manna from heaven for illustrating the theme, at least - and I can't decide between these two images (depends if one wants Starkness of Destruction in Motiobn, or a Malevitch-square of Rutgers Red about to hit the -literal - dust.   Vote???

This is a brief (and early, since I must teach a class and catch a plane to London) post - but I hope to post more images of this serendipitous photo-op on FB - and to report back on if my class have any ideas about  how to photo-document the recession.   I heard a graphic little detail on NPR as I drove in - someone reporting that there is usually all kinds of small change thrown into their local fountain, but now there are just pennies and dimes - no quarters).

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

ten pounds

So how, exactly, might one go about documenting the economic downturn, the recession, the abysmal financial pit into which we're staring?   This is a question to put to tomorrow's class on documentary... when, in considering the history of the genre, we'll look at, among other things, iconic FSA images, and less well known ones too, like the color images of Pie Town, NM.   And we might ask if documentary images are the same as news images (an anonymous white shirted man walking in blurred focus past the closed doors of Lehman Brothers, under the very suspicious eyes of a security guard)?    How to differentiate the impact of a natural disaster (the Katrina images of Robert Polidori, John Rosenthal, David Julian, say)  - visually - from that of a different sort of ruin?  (Eve Morgenstern, in her pictures of boarded up/foreclosed houses in Detroit and Oakland is someone who has documented these well).   Is it something that's more easily shown through illustration?  (the Guardian, a few weeks back, had an animated graphic of a typical English town high street - in other words, one filled with chain stores - and one could click on them to see which ones were in receivership, which ones - Woolworths, for example - closing.   Is the problem that while some of the effects of the crisis are very visible - boarded-up stores, For Sale signs, the continual presence of people asking for food donations for the Highland Park Food Bank outside Stop & Shop -  so much damage and apprehension is internal, rather than something easily made visible?   If one's looking for literary representation of dread and suspicion, Joshua Ferris's 2007 novel Then We Came to the End looks extraordinarily prescient.

This ten pound note at one level doesn't document a thing, other than the fact that it was sitting on my desk top this morning so that I would remember to take it to England tomorrow (today's exchange rate means that it's worth $14.25, she notes, cheerfully...).   And yet it looks crumpled, jaundiced, the features of the woman whom my father determinedly calls Betty Windsor turned down into a sad and wistful expression.   It's not a picture of currency looking jaunty, for sure.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


It is, unmistakably, that time of the year when procrastination takes the form of sorting out statements, receipts, paid bills, and various unopened envelopes (I found a surprise check in one of these last week, which should teach me to be less cavalier about things that I think are circulars).

And it's another example of documenting the everyday, which is why I'm using it to interrogate the comment of John Tagg's in a piece that we'll be reading for Thursday, in which he informs us that "Histories are not backdrops to set off the performance of images.   They are scored into the paltry paper signs, [the agglomeration of pixels, too?] in what they do and do not do, in what they encompass and exclude, in the ways the open on to or resist a repertoire of uses in which they can be meaningful and productive.   Photographs are never 'evidence' of history; they are themselves the historical..."   Well, yes and no.   They may surely be read as evidence in some ways, even if a gloss would be needed: this is what paper information looked like before everything went digital, and therefore this is what we had to deal with way back when - and more obliquely: I can call the posting "taxing" not just as a punning way of referring to doing taxes, but as a means of referencing the fact that in February 2009, one simply doesn't want the depressing sight of a TIAA-CREF statement staring one in the face.   There's also personal history written into the image: the postcard on the table is of Jacob Lawrence's Forward (1967), which I bought when visiting the North Carolina Museum of Art, and which had fallen in with other papers relating to my time at the National Humanities Center - and it accidentally provides, therefore, a commentary on the good political stuff of 2008, since it shows the courageous work of Harriet Tubman guiding escaping slaves along the Underground Railroad.

But how may this image itself be said to be "the historical"?   Tagg's very Foucauldian reading is one in which he sees photographs as having agency dependent on the contexts in which they are found: the signs that they contain therefore take their place, and have their impact, whether challenging or existing current power relations, according to the uses to which they might be put.   I'm quite sure a Foucauldian reading of the history implied in this image would be very possible - the degree to which our earnings and expenditure are monitored, traceable through identifying numbers; our dutiful paying of taxes as testimony to the way in which we go along with the state's demands from us (a libertarian might come out with a different interpretation, but then s/he might not have such a more-or-less tidily kept paper trail in the first place).   But thinking this through reveals the weaknesses inherent in thinking of documentary as a genre characterized by unequal power relations, I think.   (Of course, one could always make another case - one for my gaining a false mastery over these pieces of printed paper through turning them into something aesthetic.   For after all, the context of the postings here tends to be a very mild, disappointingly unpolemical one...).

Monday, February 23, 2009

documenting the desk

This is a fairly average desktop tangle on a day when I'm teaching a grad course on literature and visual culture, and prepare an undergrad class on writing and photography - in fact, come to think of it, it's somewhat bare of the books that are piled up just out of view.   It's an everyday image that looks to these classes in other ways.   We were discussing Detail in the grad class today - what constitutes a meaningful detail, what an incidental one (though Barthes's warning that either everything has meaning, or nothing has, was firmly present in the room, too) - and one could ask this of the desk.   Clearly, the clue, the way in, is that copy of Camera Obscura.   Only its presence there is not, in fact, a determinative one - it was floating around after I took a reference from it for something quite other earlier...

...which brings one to the problems of documentary, which we're turning to later in the week.   And this is very much an image that constitutes documentary by my criteria - a Szarkowski understanding, "that the commonplace is really worth looking at," rather than a more traditional understanding of documentary as exposing unfair, unequal power relations, as investigating poverty and hardship.   This picture - and I'm borrowing from Martha Rosler's argument, is, despite being unposed, un-arranged, quite definitely more governed by aesthetics than driven by even the faintest whisper of a radical idea.   All the same, it's a ghost from a kind of documentary project that I began and abandoned at the start of the year: to take a picture of the desk at which I sat down to work every morning (*every* morning??).   The other project(besides the Image of the Day) that I began, though, has been happily continuing - a picture taken every day out of the window nearest me when I wake up (including airplane windows, etc).   But what does this repetition constitute a documentary of, exactly?   Maybe I'll return to that one when I have all 365 days...

That is not, I want to point out, an extraordinarily grubby window, but one that has a thin mesh screen on least, I'll stick to that description...

Sunday, February 22, 2009


If I'm not capable (and I'm evidently not) of going out for a birthday dinner (at Due Mari, in New Brunswick, which was extremely good, but like all of this weekend, over too quickly) and taking a photograph that suggests the utter festive excellence of their cocktails, I might as well post at least a suggestion of their existence.   This doesn't mean the perfectly ordinary, if adequately chilled glass of water on the left, but the mixture of lemon vodka, limoncello, something I can't remember, and muddied basil on the right.   When did "muddied" start being an adjective described to any old piece of greenery that's been mildly stirred around in a glass of alcohol?   

Very hard, I must say, to take a celebratory looking picture on a day of murky gloom - I kept hoping that it would snow, so I could at least make some kind of link to what the weather was doing this day in 1954 (a good day for snowflakes in South London, apparently) - but it just drizzled in a half-hearted kind of way.   

Saturday, February 21, 2009

the cage

On one of my very early trips to New York, sometime in the early 1980s, I took one of the best shots of my life - a black and white picture of basketball players in the Cage, the public courts on W 4th St.   This week we had a talk in the department by Walton Muyumba that was, in part, about John Edgar Wideman's 2003 memoir *Hoop Roots,* and about him observing a young, flashily dressed basketball player on these very courts.  I'd never quite taken in their legendary status - but was very much conscious of it when walking past today, and wanted to try and take another, twenty-five years on shot.   Not that I can lay my hands on the first picture right this minute...but when I do, I shall look at it, and the clothing, in the light of a rephotography project, like Mark Klett's revisiting the sites where Muybridge took some of his most spectacular views... The trouble is, this image isn't nearly as exquisitely perfect a moment as my earlier shot, where I totally lucked out with players, movement, light, and shadow.   Nonetheless, it's for me quintessential New York.

Friday, February 20, 2009

identity crisis

The Ship is the alumnus magazine of St Anne's, my old undergraduate Oxford college.   For once, I'd been highly efficient and sent in details of my new publication.   But when I opened it up, I found I'd been turned into someone else, married off to someone called Jennet, and credited with writing the book, precociously, in 1973.

To be sure, my official, birth certificate name is, in full, Catriona Jennet Flint: an improbable mouthful.   My parents wanted to call me "Kate," but thought that two short sharp syllables might be a little too brisk.   They believed that my father had had a cousin who'd died young called Catherine (actually, and too late, it turned out that she'd been called Helen...), and didn't want to invite bad luck, so, despite their families' complete lack of Celtic ancestry, managed to hit on a Gaelic equivalent.   Jennet (in addition to being the name of a small Spanish horse, or the offspring of a male pony and a she donkey) was a one-off long-ago name on my mother's side of the family.   But I never used the full set of labels (when the first of these names was unearthed at school when I was about eleven, my classmates promptly reworked it as Cat-in-anger) - except, it would seem, to register in college.    Now I'm left feeling that my nomenclature has been completely mangled, and that my alma mater has invented a quite other existence for me.

Thursday, February 19, 2009


So... among other things, we were talking in class about images of vegetables or vegetation (c.f. Weston's shiny peppers, of course, and Robert Mapplethorpe's "Calla Lily") that are very sexualized, and talking about how, and why, we might read them in such terms.   What I wanted to do was to take a picture that would, if possible, suggest the fleshly and physical *without* necessarily being sexual.   The end result, of course, courtesy of a pink and white tulip, is more reminiscent of a rather lazily proliferating collection of random cells than anything else - or perhaps of a dental image gone very wrong: lots of infolding teeth in foliating gums.   Which started me thinking: maybe my apprehension about dentists goes back to when I was around six-and-a-half, and I didn't realize (a) that one lost one's baby teeth, and got another set, and (b) that this was what was happening when I started to grow another set of bottom front teeth behind the ones I already possessed.   In fact, I thought I was turning into a dragon (what else would have a double row of fangs?), and kept looking down my throat to see if I was growing flames.   It never occurred to me to check things out with my mother.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009


or not.   Truly, there's been very little time for it today.   But this is the view here if one's lying flat in bed, which is as good a place as any to contemplate the ways in which thoughts refract and head off in different directions.   

I'm intrigued by the way in which the perspective works here, suggesting a kind of monumentality, a Renaissance view, the interior of a building in the extraordinary painting in Urbino of an ideal city (attributed to Lucinao Laurano) - rather than a fairly small upstairs room in Highland Park...

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Rear Windowing

To rear window is quite definitely an active verb in this household: I rear window, she rear windows, we both rear window.   But the objects of our attentions in the apartment block out back are not the 2009 equivalents of Miss Torso, bouncing pneumatically up and down as she practices her dance routine, nor a bickering couple, nor Miss Lonelyheart, pouring red wine for an imaginary guest.   All of these people may live here (though the apartment contains more than its fair share of English Department graduate students, which is enough to stop one looking very hard).   No, we look for the cats.   For on a good day, almost every window has its cat looking out.

This fine black and white cat lives in the top left hand apartment (and is evidence not of my deploying a zoom lens - for yes, I do feel conspicuous pointing such a thing at the windows - but of blowing up one little section of a picture taken just a cat-stretch before the larger image) and spends a good deal of his/her time staring at birds - as does the grey cat next door, as does... The reason for this super-population lies in the Super of the apartment building, who is very active in a local organization called Cattitude (just in case you were looking for a cat to adopt).

Even in Hitchcock's movie, cats are clearly favored above dogs - the small yapping bone-burying pooch meets A Bad End, before he can dig up Whatever Is In the Hat Box, but the large orange cat is still sprawled on a chair in the sun at the end.

Monday, February 16, 2009

the pink stuff

This is not, I must say, what I had been intending to post this evening, but the picture was taken by popular demand - or at least, at the suggestion of people - that is, Carolyn - who saw a certain pattern flamingoes, pink luminous dachshund, pink ... well, maybe this was left over from Valentine's day ... pink rice pudding.   Yes.   It tasted as badly pink as it looked.

Worse still - actually "worse still" would be if I'd made it and served it myself: this was delivered by Tawa, a local Indian restaurant, to offer at the end of an otherwise very good meal - worse still, it was a dinner for a job candidate, who now probably thinks that not only do we produce strange bubble-gum themed desserts as some kind of test (just as All Souls, in Oxford, allegedly used to serve cherry pie for their fellowship competition dinners, just for the fun of seeing what candidates did with the stones), but that we then leap to our feet, search out batteries for the flash, and take photographs of inedible pink sludge.   But it certainly does go with the recurrent pink theme, as well as clashing (badly) with last week's carrot halwa.

And for those of you who didn't realize that these postings also have a life as a blog, and look much prettier there, on a black background, go to

Sunday, February 15, 2009

garage window

Since we've been watching, and are about to start discussing, Hitchcock's Rear Window in class, it seemed only natural to look out of the windows at the back of my own house... only before I had even made it round to the side that faces onto an apartment block, my eye was caught by a strange flash of red, lit up by the sunlight, in my own garage window.   So I went to investigate.   And there, hanging, was a bright red punchbag.

If it seems strange that I'm behaving like a voyeur towards the content of my own garage, I should perhaps explain that my house sitters are keeping some things in there for now, until they move into a real place of their own... hence the bicycles.   I am not a great bicycle rider, although the last time I was on one, in central Thailand, pedaling round some temples, I managed well enough (probably because it was flat).   Nor am I a great punchbag user.   Indeed, I don't think I've ever punched a punchbag, although a therapist whom I saw once, and once only, six months into my first job was of the opinion that I needed one.   She also thought that I needed a lot of hugs, and that I had an eating disorder: a combination of over-prescriptive over-interpretations that put me right off therapy.   But I think the time may be right, by now: I might sneak into the garage to have a punch or two.   And I should have a decent enough boxing stance, taught me by my mother, who had boxing lessons when a very small girl, not wishing to be outdone by her brother.

Even if it's my garage, it was strange how invasive I felt, nonetheless, photographing someone else's property - even though it's on (semi)public display, too - it's not as though I was rummaging in drawers or boxes.   I was very glad that this image doesn't suggest that at all, but rather conveys a somewhat mysterious sense of objects that have been surprised: objects that one would associate with energetic activity caught in a very private moment of stasis - I deliberately chose, to this end, the most shadowy and enigmatic of the several shots that I took before the sun moved quickly on.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Yes, this is a camera.   Or, more likely, it is a dead camera.   I reached for it to take a shot early this afternoon, the lens opened up, and then stuck, making an unpleasant whiny complaining sound.   And a message appeared, saying "lens error, restart camera."   Only of course, restarting the camera just led to the same problem again.    And then I tried to wriggle the front of the zoom lens, and the little beast came apart in my hands.   It has not been dropped, banged, or otherwise mistreated, other than carried around everywhere since May 2008.   That's not very long.

A quick Google search reveals two depressing facts (1) I am not alone - though there is not a whole yowling world of mass complaint out there (2) Canon charge $200 for "looking" at it - and do not consider it under warranty since they will believe that it has been evilly molested.     A new one costs - via Amazon - about the same price.   It still gets very good reviews.   I've taken a lot of pictures that I'm pleased with using it - obviously it's not as wonderful as my 5D; equally obviously I'm not going to take my 5D everywhere.   Sigh, sigh, sigh.

But I can still post my I of the Day, thanks to my iPhone...

Friday, February 13, 2009

lake dawn

It's not every day that I've taken the image of the day before 7 a.m., but the view out of the window here in North Carolina was pretty spectacular.   No theory, no speculative prose: I was just very happy to be able to capture an unexpected early morning tranquil view from my hotel window.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

happy birthday, Darwin!

Taking a picture of one's own eye is not easy - or, at least, I think that it will take a good deal of practice to get it right.   The problem isn't just with the angle, but with focusing - even with an automatic focus, it's difficult to get the eyeball, rather than the mascara that's leaked into the wrinkles surrounding the eye.

If photographing one's eye seems an odd way to spend an evening, I'm doing this because it seems wrong to let Darwin's 200th birthday go by without sending a big Happy Birthday card in his direction.   And most fortuitously, reading Chris Otter's splendid new book The Victorian Eye, I found him quoting Darwin:
To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable 
contrivances for adjusting the focus to different
distances, for admitting different amounts of 
light, and for the correction of spherical 
and chromatic aberration, could have been 
formed by natural selection, seems, I freely 
confess, absurd in the highest degree.
The eye as a camera lens, it seems, might have done a better job
that my own photographic apparatus at adjusting itself to what's 
in front of it.... But it also seems absurd in the
highest degree that - as CNN were reporting today - only 
4 in every 10 Americans believe in the theory of evolution.  
Maybe things will be better by the time Darwin has three
hundred candles on his cake?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Emmett the Entrepreneur

This is a posting with very limited appeal - and zero theorizing behind it.   Maybe, since it was taken on 8th and around 48th, it counts as street photography, in the long tradition of taking pictures of shop window signs, but these generic bits of signage are not of a great deal of interest to anyone - unless one happens to have a cat called Emmett - who clearly is moonlighting in NYC.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


digging a pit in Union Street

In aesthetic terms - not the best ones through which to approach this photo - this is a very dull image, taken through a rather grubby 3rd floor window in my office with a zoom lens; and, in terms of the impact of this digger on my day, it's a very incomplete image without a loud soundtrack of droning engine and the rattle and scrape of the excavator's head in the shaley dark red soil.

We were talking in class about the ethics of photography, and about when we consider it morally permissible to take a picture without someone's consent.   A good deal, we concluded, depended on the context, both in which the photo was shot, and the use to which it is put.   This image,  quite obviously, is in the first instance nothing other than a chance to sound off about the unexpected Noise of today (and tomorrow, and and and...).   But if the workmen had seen me taking this, what would they have thought?   I can't imagine any plausible explanation (Lisa Henderson's article puts great faith in dialogue with subjects) - "this is for a blog in which I write about photographs?"   A phrase which I would have to translate into Spanish - for when I went to inquire, mildly, what they were digging up the vacant lot for, I discovered that was what they spoke.   Which could well have raised a whole lot of suspicions: was I from la migra, documenting illegal immigrants, perhaps?   Was I an emissary of their employer?   So I was hardly going to explain what I was up to: "I collect photographs of mechanical diggers" would have sounded just a little crazy.

I'm currently reading Ariella Azoulay's The Civil Contract of Photography, in which she writes with deep sympathy and ethical scruples about the "ownership" of the photograph: for her, a photograph belongs to no one individual - not to the subject, not to the photographer - but to each one of us: ours to interpret.   "The photograph is out there, an object in the world, and anyone, always (at least in principle), can pull at one of its threads and trace it in such a way as to reopen the image and renegotiate what it shows, perhaps even completely overturning what was seen in it before."   But this is more than an assertion of the birth of the spectator: she announces the possibilities inherent within a photograph for "injured parties to present their grievances, in person or through others, now or in the future" (p.86).   In part, this is because of the apparatus of power that comes into play any time a photograph is taken; more particularly, in her case, her reasoning rests on the subjects about which she writes - above all, Israeli photographs of violent encounters in the Occupied Territories, and images of women, from Muybridge to Abu Ghraib.   

So what could be pulled out of this image?   The optimistic fact that there is labor in New Brunswick in February 2009?     Or other stories, coming from the digger itself, manufactured by the Japanese firm Komatsu, the world's #2 producer of mechanical diggers, and, most depressingly, as they announce on their own website, a "pioneer in the area of mechanized logging" - this razed earth in New Jersey may have its despoliated counterpart out there in southern New Mexico or in Oregon, say.    Or one could use the digger, again, to show the precariousness of the economy, despite its current activity: on February 4th, the Chicago Tribune reported that the Komatsu plant in Shawano, WI, was closing - there go the jobs of 95 workers.   I think, in other words, that there are a good many intersecting stories of labor to be excavated here, starting with the ironies that could be drawn between these workers' muddy occupation and my own "work" taking and writing about a photograph of them.   Azoulay reminds us (p.137) that photographs are the product of work - in claiming my own activity as work, therefore, I'm following her.   But there's work, and work - and that. maybe, is one thread to be pulled out of this image.

Monday, February 9, 2009


Clearly, the only thing to do when one is totally, totally panicked for photo-taking time, and feels blank for inspiration of any kind, is to turn to the nearest apparently blank surface, and find that it isn't blank at all.   This is the outside of Murray Hall, and perhaps (this is the second appearance of Murray this month) it's the moment to note that this year Murray Hall - originally built to house the School of Engineering, now the home of the English department - celebrates its anniversary - a hundred years younger than Darwin will be in 3 days time, but respectably venerable, all the same.

Since I took the photo at a very slight angle, it's proved - because of the regularity of the brickwork - peculiarly frustrating to crop satisfactorily: either I trim it so the bricks at the top are straight with the frame, or the bricks at the bottom...I could just pare it away into near nothingness.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

catalog photo

Today's photo taking was of a very practical nature: finding an image that will go into W. W.Norton's catalog to advertise Alice's disco book.   I'm not sure what will be the final choice of image - probably not anything as panoramic as this - not least because an Italianate statue of a boy with arrow and quiver is not a little incongruous (though might just fit alongside the discussion of bare-chested dancing in the gay disco chapter?).   I had, of course, all kind of visual fantasies of edgy black and white shots of Alice poised, expertly, over a turntable, reprising her dj years, but I didn't drag the lens and flash unit that might have enabled this all the way from NJ for three days (there's still the book jacket photo...maybe for that?).   So this is simply my favorite image of the ones I took this morning, and serious editing, cropping, seeing what various different pictures look like in black and white, etc., will have to wait for tomorrow.

Friday, February 6, 2009

rain on melrose

rain on Melrose

Believe me, it's quite a challenge taking photographs when it's very, very wet.   Having eliminated the blurred-view-of-orange-tree seen through window covered in raindrops; various pictures of people huddled under umbrellas in shop doorways, rather forlorn street signs reflected in half flooded streets, and predictable view of cars looming up through the damp murk seen through windshield, complete with the blur of rapid wipers, I'm left with the raindrops-keep-falling view of Melrose, outside Lucques, as we ourselves skulked under an extra large umbrella waiting for valet parking to come back with the car.   Would one know from this picture that it was Los Angeles?   probably not - and certainly not with the rain.   A US city? - the yellow cab is a give away.   But the dark and blur and wetness - that, for me, makes it very deliberately anonymous: an archetype of an urban American street at night.


Newark Airport station

Another airport shot - this one coming under the heading of Altered Images, since it's an image of one side of the structure, flipped over: a photograph taken straight ahead is also symmetrical, like a Renaissance architectural diagram.

And these may well be the only shots I ever take of EWR station, since a transport policeman came and stopped me, in no uncertain terms: our class reading next week is about privacy and rights and paparazzi and street photography - but I don't think it mentions the perils of taking photographs of inanimate things... 

Since I was in an airport, the logical deduction is that I most likely caught a plane: now in a very wet Los Angeles, and it's very late.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009


Greek sofa

It would have been very hard indeed not to take postcard-pretty pictures on campus today, 


since it was looking so unlike itself in the snow - but the problem's a familiar one: what to do with prettiness when it's readily available, like a tourist spot - how to make it in any way one's own.

I'm starting to suspect that my solution to this conundrum - at least when on the Rutgers campus - is to think hmmmmm - I wonder what's been tossed out at the back of a frat house/sorority today?   My fascination with these strange social groupings with their Greek letters comes, I'm sure, from the complete and utter absence of them in England (had we had such a thing, I would either have been desperately anxious to have been admitted or irritatingly supercilious about the whole thing - happily I never had to find out which).   Nonetheless, here's a Greek sofa.

Which made me start wondering what to call the posting - what was the ancient Greek word for snow, for a start?   And that's not at all an easy one to answer - chion, most likely (I can't manage Greek letters on Blogger, it would seem, so I'm transliterating), according to Liddell and Scott, the standard stand-by lexicon.   but maybe niphostves, which sounds much more like a very light whispery snowfall.   Chion is what forms the root of words that I've never thought of using before, like "chionophilus" - thriving in snow-covered surroundings, or "chionomania" - loving snow (which I always have done, maybe because I was born (indoors) during a snowstorm, or "chionophobia" - fearing the stuff - and this includes the apocalyptic fear, in some cultures, that the end of the world will occur in winter, preceded by a heavy snowstorm.

And Chione, the nymph, daughter of Boreas (god of the north wind, whose name I used to invoke out of the window on summer nights when I was about thirteen, for the hell of it) and Oreithyia, goddess of mountain gales - Chione was the goddess of snow.   She got pregnant by the sea god Poseidon (I can't work out how - there's not a lot of snow that actually falls on the Mediterranean), had a child with the unpleasantly lumpy name of Eumolpous, didn't dare tell her father, threw him into the sea, whereupon he was rescued by Poseidon who took him off to Ethiopia - thereby saving him, I'd have thought, from all future danger of blizzards.   I have no idea if the late C19th Italian artist Segantini knew this legend or not, but he executed some very strange pictures indeed of infanticidal mothers hanging around in snowy Alpine landscapes.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

murray hall, snow, and an umbrella 34/365/09

murray hall, snow, and a red and white umbrella

Despite today's class discussion, this is not a digitally altered photograph... apart from the fact that I tweaked the white/dark levels in Photoshop, and - following our discussion about the difference a frame makes - cropped it in  way that emphasizes the artificiality of the shape 
that is, this isn't a conventional straight-out-of-the-box photo shape.  

The original, as you can see, just has more snow, more trees ... and it's much harder (unless you click on it, and make it much larger) to see the umbrella.   So it's a case of the format being chosen to suit the (web) medium.

What's more to the point is that this is exactly the kind of image that, to be at all interesting, might have called for a little digital intervention - even cut-and-pasting in a bit of color - someone carrying a bright umbrella, say - or coloring brightly a very dead silver grey helium balloon that's been wedged up in one of the trees for weeks now.   I'd taken a couple of o.k. but relatively boring shots that didn't do much more than assert how pretty CAC can look in fresh snow - and then, most fortuitously, this person walked across with an umbrella.   I just wish that I had some of Sandy Skoglund's radioactive cats to scatter around the foreground.

Monday, February 2, 2009

counting the vases 33/365/09

counting the vases

I did know perfectly well that I hadn't seen a ghost this morning, or even the visual whisper of an intruder slipping past - but standing at the kitchen sink there was a definite sense of something moving, almost seen one moment, and then gone the next.   It only took another instant to realize that what had happened involved a thick transparent glass vase: as I moved my head, so a sense of movement somewhere in my right field of vision was created, as two sides of the glass, and the glass of the window, all came into a kind of slippery dialog with one another.

How to photograph this sensation?   It would be easy enough to have taken a little video of the phenomenon, but instead I opted for something closer to the subject of the reading for tomorrow's class, involving digital manipulation, creating what was never there in more ways than one.   For of course my own optical experience was a momentary illusion.   But there was only ever one vase.   In this image there are - how many?   Three?  But then there's a spectral presence of part of a fourth (between the two on the left hand side).   This is a composite image: I fed five images, taken sequentially, right to left - it could have been the other way round - into Photoshop's sophisticated Merge feature.   It spat out one of them as superfluous, or unnecessary, or just plain unmergeable, and pieced the others together almost seamlessly (I had to do a little cosmetic work with the blur tool to get rid of some obvious patching on the window ledge), using the building in the background as its touchstone for what needed joining together.   But I left the ghost vase bottom: it signaled both my original experience of thinking that I had seen something that was in fact illusory, and deliberately points to the artificiality of the digital construction.   It's an image that's based on the "real", obviously, but equally obviously refuses to behave like documentary evidence.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

fetish and feline 32/365/09

fetish and feline

At one level, this is, of course, nothing more than a picture of a Chinese China Cat, looking very smug in her flowery pyjamas, caught at the moment when some morning sun was falling on her.  At another level - at least according to Sarah Kember's definition of the word in her essay on "Photography and Realism," this is a fetish object: that is, the photograph stands in for what is not there (even if I were to walk downstairs right now, the sunlight has gone; even if the sunlight is back tomorrow morning, the moment at which I took this picture is no more) - but I can carry it around, safe (yes, it's backed up) and portable on this computer, a miniaturized piece of my life, like all the other images jostling around on the hard drive.   

But in fact the photograph stands for a lot more not-there than the absence of a china cat when one's not in a room with it.   What the definition of a photograph as a fetish object under-estimates is the degree to which an inanimate object may be a fetish object in its own right: its role then being doubled by the photograph.   Most obviously, Pyjama Cat is a stand-in - like all other china, wooden, etched, and indeed photographic cats in various corners of the house - for the Four Real Cats in Los Angeles, and hence she's a very basic type of fetish.   But she's also the repository of memory: of previous houses that I've lived in, and where she sat in them - an embodiment, therefore, of what is no more.  And she stand, too, for the more difficult fact that she was a gift from someone - Julia Briggs, the Woolf scholar and Victorian critic - with whom I came to have a very vexed relationship (that's academic speak for many a long story), and with whom I never had any chance of reconciling anything before she died, a year and a half ago, of a brain tumor.   Kember's assessment of the photograph as fetish object doesn't, to my mind, cope with the awkward, regretful emotions that can get stirred up by them (and/or by what they represent).    What (and this is a question we'll be discussing, I know, later in the semester) we don't like the affect produced by the resurrection of memory?   What's so ironic, in this particular case, is that I've happily lived with Pyjama Cat for years without thinking about her origins.   But taking this photograph - prompted only by the light falling on her - and then thinking how to write about it in relation to our reading has stimulated a whole lot of emotions I hadn't particularly been expecting to encounter (that doesn't, I think - reading on in Kember - make this photograph a "transformational object" - I'll get on to that one tomorrow) - since nothing has remotely been transformed in my consciousness - it's simply been stirred up, like some rather toxic sediment.