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There are many rituals associated with our annual family transhumance to Northwest Scotland. Rituals of eating, of sociability, of beach life, of arrival, and of departure. They are arrayed on a spectrum from private to public, with a cast of attendant props that includes musical instruments, four-oared skiffs, sheep shears, and homemade sushi. One inevitable sub-ritual – a minor incantation amid the major rite that is packing the car for the journey home – is the annual assay of pebbles collected, in which unwieldy bucketfulls of quintessential wonders are winnowed down to a manageable pile of take-home treasures.

Children, famously, always want to keep every stone on the beach, and ours are no exception. I, however, am in no position to cavil, since I too amass a rubble of favourites over the course of our stay, and am, if anything, even less able to kill my darlings. There is something deeply wrong about abandoning a much loved stone to the winds and tides of a lonely beach, never mind that it was found there, and presumably had been happily abiding there at least since the last ice age. We are not alone in this scavenging, as is attested to by the congregation of natural artefacts which accumulates on every windowsill and dry stone wall not swept clean at least once a week during the summer tourist season.

It helps that we stay on the terminal moraines of the last glacial maximum, so the sheer number and variety of oddball pebbles is greater than normal – in some areas, splinters off the local bedrock are thoroughly outnumbered by mineral assemblages swept in from across most of Northern Scotland. Shells too are gathered, both recently-evacuated contemporary models, and their Neolithic ancestors, which weather in profusion out of the extensive midden at the back of the beach. We try to draw the line at animal parts but despite vigorously-posted ordinances our windowsills still manage to become home to a grim toll of sheep vertebrae, dainty rabbit jawbones and skulls, and the scapulae of various seabirds.

 

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There are two psychological phenomena worthy of note in all this sifting of everyday marvels. The first is the power of wonder, whether in the captivated mind of a child or of an adult gripped by a fossicking bent. The power that the entrancing beauty of quite ordinary objects has over individual sensibilities is remarkable, especially given how societies – people in aggregate – usually venerate the exceptional and the expensive. The second oddity is the strength of the urge to possess the object, not merely to enjoy it in situ. This resists all force of logic – value, rarity, significance, craft, and utility tend to be minimal – but is felt with a power that makes leaving well alone an option which demands Buddha-like self control.

Wonder is important to photographers. A sense of wonder informs and flavours the taking of photographs as keepsakes, as aides memoires, and as family propaganda. Visual note-taking, or its more exalted variant, documentary art photography, is at least partly based upon the deeply felt surprises thrown up by the quotidian world, and being attuned to one’s own sense of wonder is an essential skill for various classes of photographer.

The second aspect though, the monumental avarice, has no parallel in photography. Indeed, one of the odd aspects of modern photography appreciation is that it so rarely involves the owning of anything – images are consumed and internalised without the need to possess a physical print, or at least, nothing more exclusive than a readily-available magazine, book or download. So the strength of feeling with which a child will refuse to share a pebble with their brothers and sisters (or a father with his beloved offspring), can come as a surprise.

In the worst cases, paranoia sets in. Every year after the midsummer high water springs, a group of tweedy ladies with spaniels can be seen quartering the beach, eyes down, dogs, for once, ignored. I am not the only one who has been given a polite but brusque brush-off when enquiring what they might be looking for. The mix of dedication, persistence, and paranoia suggests strongly that these ladies are members of one of the stranger sub-species of amateur naturalist – the cowrie hunters. British cowries are small and hard to spot, but are so jewel-like and seductively shaped, that they inspire a majority proportion of the available deadly sins in anyone unlucky enough to have a companion find one in the sand. The urge to possess is not only deeply felt, but highly personal and individual.

 

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It is commonly said that knowledge displaces wonder, and that scientific familiarity breeds, if not contempt, at least indifference. Like many things that are commonly said, these statements contain a mote of truth, but they are largely constructed from dense prejudice. For me, learning that the cowries found in the U.K. are members of the genus Trivia only adds to their charm, and wraps a layer of finespun humour around their cult status as the ultimate beachcomber’s prize.

It is true, however, that learning the names of minerals and how to recognise and find them in the field will lead to fewer surprises of the simple, “gosh, look at that!” kind; but it also admits the possibility of informed surprise – of finding that singular object which is not only a little bit different to look at, but which is so comprehensively abnormal and out of place, that it informs, or overturns, an entire system of understanding. At its best, such informed attention engenders a species of wonder which is both more satisfying and more enduring than the simpler joys of naive observation.

 

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On these beaches piled with red sandstone cobbles, it is most often the green stones, which stand out most clearly and beg to be taken home. Pick one up and look at it closely, especially in the wet, and what began as merely eye-catching becomes truly wondrous. Red sandstone, magnified, is usually just a more grainy red, but the greens, at least those found among the ground-down ancient rocks of Northwest Scotland, are a captivating patchwork of dappled pistachio, spinach, salmon, cream, and pure white bone.

Geologists have folded names into this mixture of tints and textures: such as quartz, feldspar, amphibole, serpentine, calcite, or epidote. Such terms appeal less to the senses and more to the intellect – they give off a smell, not of the sea, or the gunpowder whiff of a lobbed pebble ricochet, but of laboratories and book-lined reading rooms. The advantage of nomenclature though, is that names link the particular stone in your hand to other stones, other beaches, and other worlds. The wasabi green of epidote tells of a deep underground past spent poised on a finely balanced combination of heat and pressure. The alkali nature of creamy calcite is the reason why sibling pebbles immersed in the streams running off the peat are etched by the bog acid to a granulated, distressed version of their sea-beach selves.

 

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In this case, the extra dimension that knowledge lends to wonder is not often a pure sense of discovery or revelation. The natural geography of most of the Western World has been comprehensively categorised and indexed by the cumulative effort of one hundred and fifty years of organised professional science, not to mention centuries of amateur and antiquarian observation before that. It is exceedingly unlikely that any of the odd pebbles you might pick up on the beach will contain rare gemstones, or nodules of noble metals, or fossils which re-write the history of life on our planet. If you can only find the correct reference work, and the correct analysis tools, the mineral assemblages are standard and codified, and no surprise to anybody.

That doesn’t mean, however, that there are no surprises of any kind. Some of the many pebbles we inevitably cart home are chosen for their amusing shapes – a mobile phone, a fishing hook, a doughnut. Others are simply so far out of place that they attract by their oddity: these include the glittering schists and dense, iron-banded stones which weather out of the scattered lines of moraines outlining the snouts of ancient glaciers. Lately, our walks have extended into an area where mudstones and siltstones form beguiling cobbles that are all so similarly smooth to the touch that professional geologists are taught to test them with their teeth to differentiate their textures.

My personal favourites are those stones which combine shape and mineral structure so that, like a satisfying abstract painting or photograph, the interaction of pattern and frame gives aesthetic pleasure greater than either alone. Sometimes though, sheer elegance or lucent beauty win over any concerns of geological or aesthetic complexity, which explains why the heaps of transplanted pebbles outside the door of our home in Sweden include so many smooth, white, palm-sized quartz baubles.

 

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So where, amid all this sensuous gathering of heftable delights, does the knowledge come in? In some cases there is a sort of fame attached to a particular rock. A celebrity among pebbles would be the distinctively patterned ‘pipe rock’ which is found at the boundary where 500 million-year old bright, white Cambrian quartzites give way to more distinctive rocks bearing tell-tale fossils. In the older red sandstones beneath the quartzite there are no fossils more advanced than algae and their limestone concretions, life, at that stage, was single-cellular and microscopic. By the early Cambrian though, there were worms, who dug finger-sized holes in the sand to live in, which then filled with a slightly different sand when the worm died, leaving tubular structures running through the lithified remains of their habitats. The tubes are found in the pure white quarzite, but they show up most dramatically in the pipe rock where the matrix sands are stained red, but the holes were filled with white, so that the resulting rock looks like a normal red sandstone run through with veins of milky quartzite.

In the nineteenth century pipe rock was cause for large-scale debate – sometimes learned and noble, sometimes vituperative and mean. This was an age when geology was not just fascinating and useful: it was subversive, and actively engaged in challenging a wide range of tenaciously held mainstream beliefs. The clearly defined structure of pipe rock is a natural invitation to speculate on the processes which formed it, and several such theories were advanced, debated, promoted and disparaged. What is remarkable is not so much the ingenuity and erudition of those attempting to solve the puzzle, but the fact that by this time it no longer sufficed simply to assert that the rock had a particular structure because that was the way God had made it.

 

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The nearest outcrops of pipe rock to where we play on the beach are twenty or more kilometres away to the east. A naive observer, unburdened by any need to explain their gathering impulses, would be unworried by this example of the inanimate made animate, but to the curious, this too presents a puzzle. The solution in this case is not life, but ice – the raw material of the prettily-veined pipe rock cobbles was plucked from the bedrock and shoved down to the sea by a two-kilometre thick layer of moving glacier. Once again, what is now regarded as established fact took many years of nineteenth and early twentieth century argument and evidence gathering before it acquired the uncontroversial status it now enjoys; and once again, it is the sheer lack of satisfaction offered by gnostic just-so stories which drives a search for an explanation involving a comprehensible mechanical process.

Pipe rock plays a part in a third great geological debate, this time one belonging wholly to the twentieth century: continental drift and plate tectonics. The patterned rock and the distinctive fossils found in the other early Cambrian strata also crop up in Greenland and North America, and are part of the evidence that the Northwest of Scotland was once part of a super-continent called Laurentia. The opening of the Atlantic Ocean in a blaze of volcanism and shuddering fault slippage sliced a tiny sliver off this giant landmass, leaving it attached to a hodgepodge of other slivers and the newly-arrived gatecrasher we now called England.

So for me at least, a cobble of pipe rock has a kind of celebrity, a cloud of facts which surrounds and enhances it so that it becomes more than just a physical object. Like mundane articles of clothing auctioned off by the famous, it has an aura inherited from its back-story and connections, and a value derived from what it represents rather than what it is. It is not just a rock, although it is just a rock. Wonder, in this case, is an alloy of the aesthetic and the intellectual.

 

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At other times, a sly form of wonder is engendered by the incongruities which sprout in curlicue tendrils whenever science attempts to attach universally valid labels to complex reality. An organically developed nomenclature necessarily creates dead ends and contradictions when seen in the light of later knowledge, and unlike animal and plant taxonomy, rock types tend to retain their names as the art advances or the location varies. Misfits persist. This can lead to beauties like the intrusions of no-nonsense mining terms such as ‘whinstone’ or ‘skarn’ into the bedrock of Latinate terminology, but it can also generate paradoxes, as terms invented successfully to describe one geological structure are propagated to others by the application of Occam’s razor, until eventually, somewhere, they defy common sense.

Thus we find that the white rocks capping the topmost summits of many of the local mountains are given the name ‘basal’ quartzite, because further east, when the same rocks have slanted downwards to the bottom of the stack, they signal the start of the Cambrian sequence. A special place in the historiography of geology is reserved for the “Old Red Sandstone”, a phrase of deliberately biblical resonance applied to sedimentary rocks in the Scottish Lowlands and elsewhere, but which turn out to be the Mewling Infant Red Sandstone when compared to the truly old strata making up the Northwest Highlands.

The area we visit, Coigach, has the curious property that its rocks are all named after other places on the Scottish West Coast. Lewis, Torridon, Stoer, Applecross, Durness, Scourie. It is as if the professional bodies, which determine and codify geological names have just allowed the nomenclature to seep in under the door by accident. It would be easy to take this as a slight, but curiously, it actually enhances the specificity of the real, physical structures, because it makes it plain that the labels do not express any ineffable quintessence of place, but are merely broad categorisations of type. Names do have a resonance, and a presence, but for me, the geology of Coigach is interesting for its mixtures and juxtapositions, not its raw ingredients.

It would be tempting to come over all Whiggish and construct a hierarchy of wonder, with respected but naive childlike amazement as a base, and the informed appreciation of the expert perched on top. I find it impossible to do so, and both my pebble-picking and my photography represent a sampling of all points on what I see as a spectrum of responses – made up of informed choices, but not necessarily values. Communicating wonder to others is easier at the naive end of the spectrum, and keeping your sense of perception fresh and inclusive gets more press than the merits of teaching yourself the reasons for and meanings of what you are seeing, but that is a secondary problem which can be solved at leisure. Tackling the primary problem, of viewing and appreciating the world with an unbiased yet unjaundiced eye, is only helped by a willingness to be seduced by these everyday wonders.

 

 

 

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(on Google Maps)

 

… In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it. The following Generations, who were not so fond of the Study of Cartography as their Forebears had been, saw that that vast Map was Useless, and not without some Pitilessness was it, that they delivered it up to the Inclemencies of Sun and Winters. In the Deserts of the West, still today, there are Tattered Ruins of that Map, inhabited by Animals and Beggars; in all the Land there is no other Relic of the Disciplines of Geography.

Jorge Luis Borges,  On exactitude in science
Collected Fictions (Trans. Hurley, H.) Penguin Books.

 

I first encountered Borges’ short story soon after serving the only detention I ever incurred in my time at secondary school – the result of sultry disobedience following an accusation that I must have plagiarised my weekly essay because, as my teacher memorably asserted: “No scientist can write that well.”  Unsurprisingly perhaps, I was not impressed, not with him, or with Borges, who seemed to be joining him in slinging mean-spirited chimp poo at the sciences.

The bruise has faded now, and I can enjoy the story for its charm and intelligence, and for the craft with which it is put together.  There is still the tang of critique, a hint of sneering at the bygone hubris rather than just a cool editorial noting or examination, but the sly humour feels more general and not so directed towards science, or myself, in particular.

Of course, there are scientists who conform to the caricature of fuddle-headed out-of-touchness, but my experience is that they are more rare than the myth would have use believe.  Most university departments would actually benefit from a few extra impractical dreamers, but they act counter to the traits incentivised by contemporary Darwinian academetrics and they are either ruthlessly culled, or swamped by regression to the surrounding mean.  All the same, the myth is strong, and in an age of reasonably-grounded fears that our lives are controlled and monitored by an unaccountable cabal of technocrat adepts, there is a certain comfort to be drawn from the old calumny of abstraction beyond all practical purposes, and the peripheral absurdities necessarily generated when any concept is driven to its logical conclusion.

 

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In science itself, ‘exactitude’ has a precise, technical meaning, and it joins other words such as ‘power’ and ‘toughness’ in both gaining and losing nuances in the transition to popular use.  More often termed ‘accuracy’, exactitude expresses how closely the answer provided by your instrument approaches the true value of the thing you are trying to measure.  This begs the question of how you know the deviation from perfection if your imperfect instrument is the only way you have of estimating the true value, but there are practical techniques for handling that issue, although they usually involve suspect inelegancies such as statistics and probability theory.  Two other sibling aspects of technical measurement are also called in to help the process: precision, the ability to make the same measurement more than once; and resolution, the fundamental graininess or blurriness of the world as seen by your instrument.  This trinity of concepts informs scientific empiricism, but the distinctions between them are only hazily grasped by the lay public, even when discussing the technical issues they govern.

Despite most appearances to the contrary, our eyes are wholly imprecise, inexact, and lacking in resolution.  They are bad instruments by any numerical measure.  This usually doesn’t bother us until we try to compare their results with more exact optical devices.  The differences can lead to both quantitative and qualitative errors, and since we learn to see long before we learn to use measuring instruments, there is always a temptation to regard the obvious as true.  Nonlinearities and imperfections in our vision actively create false positives, and the authoritative force of the impressions they foist upon our consciousness means that numerically precise external measurements start out at a rhetorical disadvantage.

Far from being a window on the soul, our eyes are over-protective nannies, and they conspire with the brain to coddle our consciousness with the impression of a comprehensible smooth continuity, producing in our uncritical minds an excellent, detailed, full-colour image of what we expect the world to look like.  Cameras see in an entirely different way, because they are unencumbered by perception.  The difference between how a camera sees and how we do is not just an annoyance, or a workaday crack in the plaster which apprentice photographers must learn how to smooth over, it is central to the process of taking photographs for any purpose other than mechanical recording.

The interaction between what we see and what we perceive is guided by models and expectations built up before the act of looking takes place.  To me, now, the main lesson highlighted by the Borges story is not the impractical hubris of an exalted caste; nor is it how technical obsessions may be carried well beyond the point where returns have diminished to nothing.  Instead, the story warns of the foolishness of valuing the model over the thing modelled, and of substituting an interrogation of the world which is open to empirical amendment with a simplistic, smug apriorism.

 

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Edward Burtynsky Dryland Farming #12
Monegros County, Aragon, Spain

 

I love maps.  I pore over them even when there is little or no chance of my ever visiting the places they show.  I am, and always have been, fascinated by the combination of dense information, coded symbolism and fine printing on quality paper.  All the same, maps suffer from an unavoidable catastrophic failure which is inherent to their very nature: they do not show everything.  It is possible to mitigate this failure with a suitably comprehensive collection of maps at different scales.  Add in historical maps – in the UK at least, the older one inch maps have more information of value to fossicking antiquarians – and geological maps, cadastral surveys, and airspace charts for good measure and, given a large enough table, you have assembled the beginnings of an understanding.  However, even in the aggregate there will still be things which are missed.

Whether you are looking for specific features which the map makers did not regard as being within their remit, or trying to understand a structure on the ground which does not seem to correspond to any of the little pictograms in the legend, you will, with almost any measure of curiosity and observation, quickly find that maps need to be annotated, revised, or completely redrawn with new, personal priorities encoded into the graphical representation.

There is a greater danger here than a simple mismatch between the desired and supplied collections of symbols.  The danger is of accepting the map’s predetermined ideas about the hierarchy of described features, and of seeing the world as a collection of conventional wisdoms, without perceiving the bias with which they were selected and ranked, and without asking whether there is anything worth attending to which is not on the list.  When a map shows a path and a series of well-marked features alongside it, the temptation to tick them off one by one is so irresistible that we often do not even notice that a choice has been made.  By ticking them off we confirm and reinforce their dominance, and we incur an opportunity cost made up of all the things we did not notice because we were so busy looking for the next designated waymark to tick.

 

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Eric Fischer, The Geotagger’s World Atlas #48, Kyoto

 

Either we overlook things not marked on the map, or if we do see them, we do not accord them worth unless they fit neatly into existing categorisations of value.  Even giants of empirical wisdom and observation can be blinded by pre-existing hierarchies.  Charles Darwin complains in his diaries that his youthful geologising lacked the benefit of Agassiz’s elucidations of post-glacial landforms, and of how much richer an early visit to Cwm Idwal would have been had he been able to recognise the plainly-visible moraines, striations and erratic boulders for what they were.  Samuel Johnson on his tour of the Hebrides is taken to admire a pair of large glacial erratics on the island of Coll, and dutifully marvels at them and speculates on their provenance.  They are, however, quickly defined as but one of many interesting but intractable phenomena, and they are abandoned to sink out of sight in the narrative’s wake.

The danger of not seeing what isn’t on the map is just as real and omnipresent if we consider any mental model of the world and what is ranked as important within it.  Which is not to say that models are bad, or useless, or doomed to lead us astray, but rather that we should be on our guard against complacency.  This danger is especially prevalent in photography, where there are immensely strong conventions as to what is worth photographing, and why, and in what style.  These conventions operate as a map, and a timeline, where certain subjects, events and places are marked with a convenient iconic symbol denoting that they are suitable to be photographed, while most others are not.  In the translation from the entire complexity of the real world to the family album or project portfolio there is a touristification of human experience, in which key highlights – often defined in advance – are heavily overrepresented.

I often photograph plants, or interconnected communities of plants and their environments.  As such, I find myself squeezed between the twin sloughs of convention: Garden Photography and Nature Photography.  Plug either capitalised phrase into a Google image search, and an eye-catching cascade of thumbnails quickly fills the screen.  Both genres are fond of an over-saturated, warm-n-cosy view of the world, and it is not an accident that the images look great in small sizes.  The subjects, the presentation and the composition are all deliberately, if not consciously, presented as easily read truisms.  Although both fetishize a wealth of detail, that detail is only there to reassure the viewer that the scene is real – it is not used to communicate, but to establish authority.  The purpose of most such Garden and Nature photography is to confirm, not to inform or reveal.

 

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GardenGarden PhotographyNature PhotographyNature

 

An interesting thing happens if you drop the ‘Photography’ from the Google searches.  The ‘Garden’ images become somewhat more interesting, certainly more complex, as if relinquishing the need to demonstrate self-consciousness has freed the photographer from stylistic conventions.  I have also seen this effect in books on landscape ecology and landscape history, where the photographs accompanying the chapter headings, which aim at a more artistic, reflective mood than the purposeful illustrations of the main text, are far more dated, stilted and forgettable than the artless art they supposedly surpass.  ‘Nature’ images, on the other hand, turn the dial up to eleven.  Everything a thinking photographer might complain about in the page of ‘Nature Photography’ thumbnails is enhanced and exaggerated to an almost painful extent when Googling plain ‘Nature’.

There is therefore, and here the irony is of industrial strength, a spectrum of observational blindness and restrictive conformation to predetermined type, from the relatively free world of the pure garden, through self-aware photography of both gardens and nature, to the exponentially-compounded conventions of pure nature work.  Not all of the constriction comes from photography, but the desire to make a photograph regarded as good by the prevailing, commonly agreed-upon laws of assessment certainly provides a useful tourniquet.

Conventions are not necessarily bad, but they blind and restrict us.  They promote seeing the world as a collection of established pigeonholes to be stuffed, and they discourage curiosity and creativity.   They privilege the mean over the outlier, and the long term, area-integrated, average trend over the specific particularity of This, Here, and Now.  The specificity of photography, the very thing that makes it most unique and powerful as a medium, is actively subverted as photographers and viewers wrap themselves in a mutual comfort blanket.

 

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Balnagleck, Mull of Kintyre
From Scotland’s Landscapes

 

Daniel Simberloff puts it nicely in a warning against physics envy in ecology, and against the valuing of elegant predictive models of over messy collections of field observations:

What physicists view as noise is music to the ecologist; the individuality of populations and communities is their most striking, intrinsic and inspiring characteristic, and the apparent indeterminacy of ecological systems does not make their study a less valid pursuit.

David Simberloff.  A succession of paradigms in Ecology: Essentialism to Materialism and Probabilism.  Synthese, 43, 3-39 (1980)

Simberloff’s article does not just support empiricism as a worthwhile activity in its own right.  He is concerned to point out the dangers and dead ends created by idealist models and by systems of intellectual valuation which place theories above the experimental observations they should be attempting to explain and predict.  Model worship can get out of hand in any field, but it is particularly strong in the sciences because of the overwhelming mythological status of great predictive theorists such as Newton or Einstein.  Their success, however, should not blind us to the long term value of detailed, unbiased empirical observation: the stimulus for a stunning new theoretical breakthrough has often been a mundane, but undeniably valid, experimental fact.

The unbiased empiricist is, however, not a commonly encountered being.  In particular, preconceptions are remarkably persistent – and sneaky.  There will always be a tension between the twin poles of looking for the thing you expect to find and assembling a collection of entirely uncorrelated flotsam.  To some degree, empiricism must always contain an unavoidable element of apriorism – you can’t note down everything – and there are also times when your purpose is from the outset to say something coherent, systematic, and particular within the framework of existing conceptions.  On occasion, opening your mind only serves to empty your head: rejecting any form of preparation or planning can lead to nothing more than self-indulgent noodling.  In a world of adequate perfection though, the ideas will guide, not lead, and there will be room to accommodate revisions occasioned by surprises and serendipity.

The tension is quite general.  Even physicists suffer from physics envy, in that there is a continual pressure to relate observations to a prevailing theoretical understanding.  The most childlike woolgatherer has taken a more or less conscious decision to gather wool, and not litter, or casts of animal footprints, or dry leaves.  The trick, I think, is to be consciously aware of biases and models, to indulge them to the extent that they permit a useful and interesting synthesis to be made, but not to internalise them so deeply that they dictate your entire attention.

 

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Noah Devereaux, Overhead, Middle America

 

There is one further aspect of maps and models which intrigues me, not so much because it relates to the process and practice of photography, but more because it provides such fascinating subject matter.  Maps do not only influence the mental and conceptual aspects of cultural interactions with an unchanging landscape, they also act as determinants for the landscape’s physical development.  There is feedback, and it works both ways.  A ‘model’ may be an abstracted representation of something, but in most European languages it can also mean a pattern from which something is constructed.

Political and economic maps in particular have a way of turning into self-fulfilling prophecies.  The world evolves to conform with the map, rather than the other way round.  A persistent canard from pre-revolutionary Russia was that the engineering-motivated loop followed around a pair of steep gradients by the Moscow to Saint Petersburg railway was the result of the Tsar drawing around his finger by accident when ruling the otherwise straight-line path of the proposed railway onto the map.  This story was too good to die with the revolution, and mutated into a similar bulbosity in the Russian-Finnish border, supposedly drafted around Stalin’s thumb by a deferential aide.  Railways and borders both exert influence on local land use and patterns of development, and so the curves representing the pre and post-revolutionary leader’s digits are now indelibly imprinted onto the landscape, regardless of whether the foundation myth is real or not.

However, perhaps the single most extensive example of the determinant power of maps and models is the Public Land Survey of the continental USA.  Originally intended to facilitate the selling of land that neither the seller nor the buyer had set eyes on, this divided the country up into nested sets of square parcels, and the marks and spaces of the reticulated pattern of allocated land are now written so deeply into the physical and conceptual landscape that they are unlikely ever to be erased.  The conceptual rigidity extends from homespun tales of forty-acres and a mule to ingrained resistance – on purely practical grounds – to the introduction of the metric system into the USA.  I confess to a smirk when I imagine sun-hardened farmers negotiating with snake-eyed land agents over the disposition of ‘aliquots’, a word I otherwise associate with the recherché delicacies of quantitative analytical chemistry.  The squares of land themselves form the boundaries of zoning in urban and suburban areas, and of ploughing, irrigation, fertiliser use and grazing in the countryside.  Around their perimeters are threaded roads, artificial watercourses, utility cables and pipelines.  Even in the event of a rapture-like removal of all human presence, it is a fair bet that the lattice of physical and chemical changes laid out on the ground will persist for thousands of years.

 

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(on Google Maps)

 

The brute doggedness of the Survey’s implementation is revealed in all its rectilinear magnificence when flying (or Googling) across the central Great Plains.  There are hiccups, such as at the boundaries between two States whose grids are based on different starting meridians, where half-sized and wedge-shaped plots are squeezed up against the state line, and all the minor roads are forced to lurch through a dogleg as they traverse the misalignment.  There are also odd insertions and adjustments made necessary by the adamantine laws of geometry – a square grid on a spherical surface cannot fit exactly, and the accumulated errors are swept by law into the western and northern edges of the larger squares.

Perhaps the most impressively Borgesian element of the Survey is what happens when it crosses the Continental Divide and enters land where the convoluted topography simply refuses to accommodate horizontal straight lines.  The Survey proceeds impassively as if nothing had changed, laying out its patchwork of imaginary squares all the way to the Pacific.  The individual square as a legal entity, and as property, exists independently of any practical considerations as to its suitability for use.  Thus in the loess farmland of the Palouse the reticulations of the survey are further decorated by the dictates of topography and drainage, to produce what from the top down looks like a distinctly cubist conception of the farming landscape.  A little further west, in the marvellously named Channelled Scablands, ice-age mega-floods have scoured braided paths through the loess and down into the bedrock, but the Survey lays out its little squares undaunted, and farmers have planted wheat in whichever portions of their squares actually contain enough level soil to make tillage practicable.

 

scablands_600

(on Google Maps)

 

There are other cases where the map becomes the territory, including extreme examples such as the large scale model of the Aksai Chin dug into the Ningxia desert by the Chinese army so that they could practice tank battles.  However, my life as an idling Googlenaut has turned up just one other example of a 1:1 scale map engraved into the land itself, and it is a sad one.  Closer to Borges’ birthplace of Buenos Aires, in the interior of the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo, I came across odd patches of country which on the satellite image look exactly like maps, complete with contour lines, geodetic grids and colour-coded land types.  Part of the pattern results from a grid of land allocations, and the subsequent parcelling up of land use and its typical resulting vegetation types.  The contour lines, however, are at first baffling, not least because they are often continuous across the comprehensible linear boundaries and therefore must predate the patterns of growth, which now reveal them to an overhead eye.

 

contoursandfields_600

(on Google Maps)

 

At first I thought I had enabled some kind of topographical overlay within Google’s satellite view, but I checked, and I had not.  The terrain did not seem steep enough for terraced farming to make any kind of sense, as a virtual drive along nearby roads covered by Google Street View confirmed.  Street View also made it clear that the lines are fairly subtle as physical features on the ground.  The contours seen on the satellite image are more akin to crop marks than well-defined embankments or earthworks.  They represent structures written into the landscape with enough force to make themselves visible in patterns of growth, but which are not disruptive enough of the terrain to prevent any particular land use.

The answer, as far as I can make out, is that these are fossil logging roads, laid out along contour lines to facilitate the removal of timber as this area was successively cleared from over 80% tree cover in 1845, to 58% in 1907, 18% in 1952, 8% in 1973 and an estimated 3% today.  Sugar cane, then coffee, then ranching, and then sugar cane again, have dispatched the original forest as if it had never been.  What is left, is not stumps, or even small memento-mori remnants of the wildwood, but instead a ghostly etching of the topology into itself.  This reflexive scribing will endure far longer than any human memories of what was removed, and, in a millennium or so, historians will add it to the list of incomprehensible but charming rituals, like galloping white horses dug through chalkland turf.

My elegiac tone is conventional, but, I think, justified by the sheer scale of the clearance.  In other parts of the world there are limits, as in Malaysian Borneo, where similar contouring road networks stop dead at the border with Brunei, whose royalty and government strenuously protect their forests.  In South East Brazil however, you find the contour lines almost everywhere you take the trouble to look.  You think you have reached the end, and then a new set pops up in an isolated field and you realise that you are still traversing the clear cut.  The wood was vast, and it is gone.

In this case, the landscape has come to resemble a map which nobody actually drew.  The unique thing in South East Brazil is that the enduring marks left upon the land are not clues or remnant reminders as to what once was ubiquitous, but an enduring record of the process by which change was effected.  This is a Meta-Borges, or, in keeping with the Malthusian despair lurking just below the surface, Borges exponentiated.

two_tone_google

 

I came of age in Margaret Thatcher’s England. She and those who followed along after her deliberately closed many of the doors which were held open for me, and which allowed me to side-step the otherwise crushing dictates of class, upbringing and expectation. She impoverished England, literally and figuratively, even as she made it superficially richer. I feel luckier than I deserve to have benefited from the things she destroyed.

I am not the sort to dance on graves, or to celebrate anybody’s death. The petty escalation of minor grudges was one of Thatcher’s defining characteristics, and it is a game which leaves indelible stains. Ironically for one so fond of quoting small town shopkeeper home truths, her major legacy is one of waste.

 

consett

Consett Park housing development  Pauline Eccels

 As it happens I have recently been re-living my muscial youth – as part of an only partially successful attempt to recover some of the fitness and strength I enjoyed before persistent tendon injuries forced me to abandon regular exercise six to seven years ago. I still cannot run in any serious way, but I have taken to training on a rowing ergometer as a way of generating a substitute sweaty buzz. Without the distractions of passing scenery and wildlife, musical accompaniment has become more necessary than ever.

I never learned to run to rap, and its pervasive influence on rhythms means that today’s mainstream hits don’t seem to sync with the way my body works. I don’t know if I have become less tolerant of blatantly commercial music or just mentally viscous with age, but I find myself mostly ignoring contemporary pop and reassembling my old running tapes as iPod playlists. I have conducted my own personal 80s revival via YouTube, Amazon and the Apple Store.

One reaquaintance that has given special pleasure has been with the bands of the U.K. ska revival, The Beat in particular. Why the depths of a bitter recession should have produced a pop movement which emphasised joyful exuberance and racial inclusiveness has, I’m sure, already fueled multiple PhD theses. Quite why my normally analytical brain sneers at today’s cynical teenyfluff but falls for over-produced ska versions of over-produced Motown songs is also the likely topic of a raft of unread sociology texts. No matter: the songs are fun, and the saxophone riffs are fun squared. Hip, hip hooray yeah yeah.

 

TheBeat

 

But the curmudgeon will find a way in. The same inner eye that notices not-quite-right commonplace details, that enlivens and informs my life as a photographer, is also at heart a niggardly besserwisser. I seeth inwardly at tourist maps which do not show which way is North, and I would welcome the reintroduction of flogging for childrens’ illustrators who draw rainbows with the blue on the outside. My knowing eye is always awake and it comes with an accompanying ear for dislocated language. I wince at how routinely any largish group of trees becomes a forest, and I grieve a little for what has been lost now that any field with flowers in it may be called a meadow. Don’t get me started on “decimate”.

In The Beat’s first hit, a reworking of a Temptation’s song, “The tears of a clown“, there is a change of gear two thirds of the way through. It is a brief switch of tempo, key and tone, and it usefully trips up any tendency to drift along with the song. The gearchange has now become a stylistic cliche (it is a staple, for example, of Eurovision Song Contest entries) but in the 1980s it retained a tiny smidgen of its original freshness. In this case, it signals the impending arrival of an incomprehensible lyric, a gabbled pair of lines which seem – amazingly – to be saying something about a Greek or Latin philosopher. That music directly descended from Desmond Dekker should contain a mondegreen or two is no great surprise, but successful googling for the lyrics doesn’t actually lessen their oddity:

Just like Pagliacci did
I try to keep my sadness hid
Smiling in the public eye
But in my lonely room
I cry the tears of a clown
When there's no one around.

Pagliacci.

Pagliacci?

MacNeil, Cornell as Tonio in Pagliacci N2089_W

 

Just how did the lead character from a stodgy repertoire opera insinuate his way into my top-rankin groove?

And that’s where the Besserwisser starts with the interjections. Small at first:

It’s obvious you idiot: Pagliacci is a clown who is famous for masking his sorrow!

Then, more insistently, and less in support of the song’s basic premise:

He’s not really Pagliacci, he’s an actor called Canio who is sad and trying to hide the fact while having to play a clown who is also sad and trying to hide the fact.

And then things really get messy as we pile on the needlessly introduced complexity. An unusually indulgent mentor might just let this pass as a subconscious way of testing an idea to the limits, to see if anything coherent survives:

He’s not really Canio either. He’s an opera singer we know from countless recordings and televised performances, who may or may not be sad in real life, but who is – today at least – playing an actor who is getting sadder by the minute and failing to hide it very well, all the while having to play a stoical clown who is most certainly sad but hiding it much better, but who for all we know might – if given the chance to play to the end of this play within a play within a play – quite possibly have followed the lead set by the middle member of this nested chain of characters, gone apeshit, and killed everybody.

I’m not sure which ‘he’ I’m talking about either.

 

9198##S

Sketch for Pagliacci, Judy Cassab

Art Gallery of New South Wales

 

By this time the song is over, Nedda and Silvio are well-stabbed, in storyworld number one at least, and I am alone in the silence wondering if Smokey Robinson was really intending to darken his otherwise straightforward and likeable song with veiled threats of double domestic murder and schizophrenic personality disorders. Probably not.

This could easily be taken for an example of how easy it is to over-intellectualise almost anything, of how rational thought supposedly complicates simple pleasures out of existence. But I think it’s more than that. The fuzz of peripheral ideas doesn’t stop me enjoying the song – it is, after all, now a permanent mainstay of my workout playlist – but it acts like a scuff mark on a comfortable pair of shoes, or a knot bump on a well-worn wooden bench. It is an example of how experience and usage can inject the particular into the universal, and sustain individuality in the face of widely-accepted convention, often when you least expect it.

My mental hiccup over that one brief opera reference is a useful reminder that communication is often imperfect, that signs and allusions are always open to interpretation in frames of reference entirely unsuspected by their authors. As a creator of a work this means not only that you will almost certainly be misinterpreted by at least some part of your audience, but also that you may reveal things you did not intend to make public. As a consumer of art or information, it means you may place a false significance on minor aspects of the thing perceived.

Gallows humour can be seen as a particular case of the latter: those who grew up in my sort of background and culture inevitably carry with them an inner urchin, and cannot help but frame their personal reactions around one of those fragments of incidental comedy which can always be found frollicking in the margins of every report of tragedy.

Examples abound.

I do not miss Thatcher’s England. I miss the uncomplicated acceptance of immortal opportunity I had when young, and I miss having knee joints which could run down a one-in-four carrying an eighty pound rucksack. The beat, at least, goes on.

 

galahad

 

A politician is said to be the only animal capable of sitting on a fence while simultaneously keeping both ears to the ground.

Personally, I think they are most easily identified by their ability to talk endlessly without ever saying anything.  A recent politico-meme which, like upside-down Union Flags, is impossible not to notice, when noticed once, is the use of the word ‘exciting’ when they wish to talk about something while never actually conveying information.  Exciting developments; exciting new projects; exciting *and* interesting concepts; exciting strategies.  Swedes do it too: anyone who says “spännande” more than three times in an interview is more than certainly bluffing.

The photographic equivalents are not hard to spot.  Fish shot in barrels do not die, they merely go round, and round, and round.  Churn for churn’s sake.

However, even the most hard-bitten peddlers of wet leaves on rocks and old grannies from exotic holiday destinations, even the most career-tracked bright-eyed and bushy-tailed political intern, cannot match spambots for sheer unadulterated fluff.

Thirty seconds after posting on the blog, it starts.  I promised myself never to blog about blogging, but these little masterpieces of chatty vacuity deserve to be shared.

 

achiltibuie in rainstorm

 

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Exciting stuff.

image1

 

I am currently indulging a fascination with the relationship between perception and knowledge: how what I know influences what I see, and how I interpret and value the things that I have noticed. It is quite common for me to photograph something I find visually interesting – on purely aesthetic grounds, or because some structure seems to hint at a process or pattern of activity – and then to find that my understanding of what I have photographed undergoes radical revision as I learn more about it from background reading, or from talking to people who inhabit or are otherwise familiar with the same places or types of landscape. The more startling the revisions, the more likely it is that I will find examples of similar processes everywhere I look the next time I try to take photographs.

There is a tension between information, particularly information as text, and what I once naively thought of as pure observation. Art has for a long time valued the peculiarly gifted observer, but at least since the Romantics, if not before, an emphasis has been laid on sensibility and instinct: ineffable qualities possessed and employed in a way that is deliberately exclusive of intellectual thought. I, however, am much more interested in forensic seeing, the informed reading of the world practiced by scientists such as geographers, ecologists, and field archeologists, and also by people with deep practical experience such as gardeners or craftsmen, or long-term residents of a landscape, for whom every minor feature bears an associated history or anecdote. What is seen is associated with facts or shared history, and valuation is adjusted by weightings drawn from detailed background knowledge. Photographs informed by this attitude have what I think of as a high degree of visual interest, which can be entirely independent of traditional motivations for looking such as beauty or wonder.

Communicating this mixture of knowledge and the things seen is not easy if you subscribe to the traditional photographic dogma that photographs should stand alone, without the special pleadings of an attendant text. Yet, as is shown by examples from well-illustrated instructional books through daily newspapers to graphic novels and comic strips, a combination of text and images can be considerably more forceful than either on its own. Not just to convey facts, but also to awaken curiosity, and to insipire more abstract feelings and emotions. There is a richness of experience that can be awakened by an accompanying paragraph and which creates a significantly broader interaction with the work than viewing the photograph blind. I am therefore facing the awkward notion that perhaps the best way to present my photographs to the world is to combine them with writing.

 

image2

 

I do not enjoy writing, and I will always put it off as long as possible. Passing the point that career or reputation-minded writers would consider optimum for publication is for me merely a first gentle impulse to the process of considering what I might, perhaps, wish to write about. Deadlines, both real, and artifical, approach at speed, loom alarmingly, pass, and then recede into the safe status of bygones, accompanied by a motly gaggle of excuses, apologies, and half-baked genuine causes gleaned from the incidental episodes of my non-writing life.

I do absolutely love *having written*. Rather like getting up disgustingly early to catch a summer sunrise, writing is hideous to do, but immensely satisfying once done. I re-read prior work as a form of encouragement, and although I can’t help wincing at occasional infelicities left unsmoothed, I do draw pleasure and inspiration from having concrete proof that on previous occasions I have found something to be worth saying, and have put together sufficient words to actually say it. The pleasure derived from once having written is a major motivation to write again.

Mere success, on the other hand, is not the stimulant it is usually made out to be. Those times in my life which have resulted in what the external world regards as an achievement have almost always proved flat in the experience. Sometimes, like the well-prepared marathon runner, it is a matter of everything working so smoothly and according to plan that I am left feeling that with a bit more effort I could have done even better. Other times, it is because opponents disappoint with insufficient force or ingenuity. Mostly though, I think it is because at base I am more interested in questions and possibilities than I am in answers or solutions. The process of finding out whether an issue is tractable or comprehensible is far more important to me than publishing or otherwise disseminating any facts thus proved. Heaven is discovering an addressable problem where none had been thought to exist. Hell is being forced to tell others about it before I am ready.

 

image3

 

In some ways, my photography suffers from a similar despondency, which is not helped by the necessity to perform actual manual work to produce physical prints. I always found darkroom work a drudge, and have never understood the supposed magic of watching an image come up in the developer. Scanning film for the digital darkroom feels no less like a treadmill. I had thought that digital capture would speed the process from perception to presentation by eliminating some of the dull work involved, but it is nevertheless slowed by the necessary steps of contemplation and refinement through selection and editing. The glacial pace at which I produce finished photographs for others to look at is not merely a consequence of physical sloth, but the effort required to produce a publishable artefact does helpfully provide an incentive to stay put and chew things over one more last time.

The primary difference between photography and writing is that even in my most dormant periods I do continue to produce photographs, and thus I have a physical reminder of whatever it was I was seeing, thinking and feeling, even if that reminder is not sufficiently polished to show to any public. A heap of proof prints undeniably exists, and it may be browsed at will. I find that I can reconstruct my thought processes surprisingly well from the succession of hints and themes which emerge from the stratified piles.

Those thoughts and ideas which should ideally have been committed to text have a way of sinking, not without trace, but down into a layer of background knowledge where they become so basic and fundamental that it ceases to seem worth remarking upon them. There are pleasures to be had in assimilation, as when a new observation re-isolates prior study from the background of memory, and I am rewarded with a pleasing sense of connectedness. There is also the affirmative joy of watching understanding grow by the accretion of different aspects of the same thing to form a complex but coherent whole.

It is just about possible to go data mining even in my unindexed textural records. A fact which has saved me from myself on more than one occasion. My books are organised in chronological order of when I finished reading them, which makes it possible to traverse the prehistory of my interests with a crablike scan along the shelves. Ordering my web browser’s bookmarks or my downloads folder by date achieves a similar trick. Most often though, unrecorded thoughts are subsumed or incorporated into the self-evident background.

Organising both thoughts and photographs is complicated by the fact that I am highly resistant to the idea of projects. Themes, bugbears, interests and dispositions are recognised and accepted with thanks, but a project – to head out with a shoot list intending to take photographs of things I already know I want to photograph – strikes me as entirely missing the point. Consciously filling gaps to create a logical or comprehensive survey is likewise something I avoid where I can. Empiricism and serendipidity are far more important to me than any sense of mission or of a priori coherence. The sense of discovery is far more wondrous than that of confirmation.

This can lead to problems when it comes to presenting work to others, where a common theme or thread is so helpful to understanding as to verge on the necessary. Usually, my ever-present mix of procrastination and perfectionism ensures that I have enough material from which to select a thematic subset – a process best described as drawing a target whereever my arrow happened to have landed. I end up feeling slightly unclean at having magicked a topic out of thin air, not least because for me the overlapping and interconnection of the multiple themes of the entire raw data set are one of its major charms. However, I appreciate clarity in other people’s work when shown to me, and it seems churlish and arrogant to expect anyone else to immerse themselves in every last detail of my personal motivations and musings. An unusually strong motivator such as world-fame is generally required before it becomes possible to receive that degree of dedication, or purience, from your readership.

 

image4

 

Both my writing and my photography follow a similar generative path. The best starts with an observation, a noting of something seen, or learned about the world, which sufficiently intrigues, annoys or fascinates that I nag myself until I take a closer look. At that point the empirical scientist kicks in – is this thing real? typical? unique? reproducible? Most tempting of all: is it the visible result of a pattern-forming process at work.

It doesn’t really matter that much whether something is typical or unique. The usual can be woven into a work just as easily as the one-off exotic, and a combination of both is a staple of many kinds of storytelling and reportage. Similarly, the distinction between real things and imagined ones becomes less important when my main concern is individual perceptiveness: machine vision doesn’t necessarily tell us more than fantasies or dreams. These distinctions are more about categorisation than valuation. They affect how an observation might be incorporated into a finished body of ideas for presentation, but they do not of their own give it particular value or weight.

However, I am, and have always been, instantly captivated by the interplay of patterns and processes, particularly ones which have to be inferred from the interpretable forensic clues they leave scattered in plain sight. This is undeniably a value judgement, and I welcome it as such. It forms the major part of the division between information I personally find interesting and that which is merely bumpf.

This places me in mixed company. Enlightenment natural philosophers were similarly entranced by the explicability of the external world, and it is tempting to regard myself as an heir to that golden age of empirical observation and wondrously applicable predictive analysis. There is however, also a kinship with precocious children possessed of annoying books of thrilling facts, not to mention gnostic high priests, conspiricy theorists, and various whizened scholars of the detailed and useless.

Therein lies a second great difference between my photography and my writing. In photography I do not defer to authority. I consciously work hard not to care too much if a viewer catagorises me as a Diderot or a Huckleberry. This self-awareness is a necessary reaction to what I see as an immense pressure to fit in and to make photographs which look like other photographs – a constrictive pressure I see as endemic to the worlds of amateur, commercial and art photography. I took a vow when I first started to think seriously about photography that I would have the courage to dare to be myself.

In writing I am more conformist, if only because I am an autodidact in much of what I am writing about. Having sometimes taught the self-learned in subjects in which I am well-versed, I know the generic pitfalls of having myself as a mentor. Mostly it is a question of emphasis and context: it is hard to assess the significance of a fact if you lack a complete overall understanding of the field. Sometimes though, a new fact when learned opens up a vast and worrying unexpected territory of common knowledge which somehow had slipped past my understanding. Sinkholes make careful treading a sensible tactic.

So in writing I tend not to challenge conventional wisdom, at least not head on, and not unless I am fairly sure that I can make my cheek intrinsically interesting or amusing. My photography, on the other hand, is deliberately more personal, and being wrong or muddleheaded is not necessarily an automatic mark against me. If one attraction of my photography is that it represets my personal response to things seen, it should allow the possibility that my response is factually wrong, or at least misguided. Provided I don’t pull the same trick too often, the tension between my perceptions and those of the audience can add to the experience of viewing my work.

In principle, I could alternate between playing the expert, and playing the ingenue. In practice though, my unavoidable habit of background reading usually means that I am more likely to be trying to illustrate what I have learned than presenting a fascinating but unfathomable observation. I do not think this is just self importance at work. So much of what I think I have discovered myself has turned out to be well-established lore within communities external to the photographic world that I have become highly suspicious of the naive approach. Many photographic projects strike me as being poorly researched shades of anthropology or sociology, and there is a prevailing lack of understanding or empathy, which is often justified as a form of artistic vision, but which seems to me to be more like wilful ignorance, or laziness.

 

image5

 

Thus I am playing with ways to combine text and images into a whole that is greater than its parts. For inspiration I am studying medieval manuscripts and instructional books of the 50s and 60s – for me, a golden age of well-designed, illustrated non fiction – and playing with titles, captions and various ways of arranging text around images without fragmenting or subjugating either. I would like to think that on-screen reading with interactive layout and content should be able to provide a better way of combining text and photographs than linear paper books, but thus far I have not found or come up with a scheme which is anything other than incredibly annoying. The optimist in me says that this too may just be a sign that I need to do more research.

At some point, of course, it will become necessary to actually write and publish something, to resolve the tension between perfection and possibility and commit my thoughts and photographs to some particular format. Experience suggests that I will not find this to be an urgent necessity, nor that I will avoid my usual procedure of paving a five lane trunk route to Hell with the finest quality good intentions. I have learned to live with this, if only because my muse delivers only dullness when forced. However, I can say with one hundred percent confidence that I am now definitely, confidently, sure that publication will involve both writing and pictures, and that it will happen. Sometime. Soon.

 

 

Procrastination is perfection

turned seedy.

Not wheat or walnut,

but kin of goosefoot

edible if famished

and unfastidious;

or, a rose gone to hip

snagging attention

and, when young

itching a best friend’s back.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Usine Toyota No. 7, Valenciennes
Stéphane Couturier

 

 

Forest
Adrian Tyler

 

 

Ruigoord 2
Wout Berger, 2002

 

 

River Lee
Dean Hollowood

 

 

Apples with red inner bags, fall, Aomori prefecture
Jane Alden Stevens

 

 


Revisiting Shiskat

Zulfiqar Ali Khan, 2010

 

 

 

Hillsides, Gorman, CA
Stephen Strom

 

 

Copper Mine, Az
Marco Van Middelkoop

 

 

Abandoned Syrian base, View of a minefied, Golan Heights
Shai Kremer, 2007

 

 

Midway, message from the gyre
Chris Jordan, 2009

 

 

Nature Morte 114
Astrid Korntheuer, 2009

 

Mirrors, windows, walls
Mike Chisholm, 2010

 

 

06594d
Sabrina Jung, 2001

 

 

Berck ou comment prendre son pied
Henri Gaud, 2010

 

 

Untitled #43 (from the Morning and Melancholia series)
Laura Letinsky, 2001

 

 

Mow Cop
Emma Biggs and Matthew Collings, 2008

 

 

Colour composition derived from three bars of music in the key of green
Roy de Maistre, 1935 (via)

 

 

Suprematist composition
Kazimir Malevitch,1916

 

 

 

 

Horace Trenerry, Winter landscape late afternoon

Horace Trenerry, Winter landscape, late afternoon light.  c1945

Art Gallery of South Australia

 

All years are exceptional years, but this one has been more exceptional than most. Even the weather has joined in, so that we have had, not the usual dull progression of grey, spent anticyclones, but instead a run of almost continuous snow and cold from Advent onwards. A white Christmas, and a seemingly endless succession of sledging and skating days, has made this winter the stuff of childhood myth.

Naturally, everyone is complaining. Trains are delayed, roads unploughed, heating bills up; and the snow itself too cold, too white, too wet, too deep: too much – altogether too much. I annoy as many as I can by smiling Cheshire-like through the spindrift, cheerfully piling up the latest deposits with my trusty snow shovel, and laughing out loud when the sheer weight of encrusted glop finally defeats my attempts to cycle on hub-deep virgin pathways.

Others may moan, but snow brings out my inner puppy. It makes for a world that is clean, bright, legible, and malleable. Inconsequential creativity and destruction accompany every step, and the snowpack’s current surface and structure contain a detailed log of the previous weeks’ human, animal and meteorological activity. Photographically, it is usually regarded as a problem to be solved: the root cause of untamed contrast and heart warming stylistic clichés, but to me, seeing snow as a problem is formally equivalent to the idiot killjoys who claim to yearn for our more usual climate of steady rain and omnipresent mud. Photographing in the cold does have its technical issues – most urgently, how to stop fingers from freezing – but I love snow for the way it divides figure from ground; decorates and enhances detail; abstracts and purifies terrain; and perpetually adjusts its own shape, density, colour and texture.

 

Teazles and Cow Parsley

Teazles and cow parsley

 

So it is odd then, that I’ve not been out much with my camera of late. It’s partly the bicycle thing: a round trip of my favourite patches has expanded from an hour to two and a half, or more, depending on the state of the tracks and the viciousness of the wind. Swedish has a wonderful word, ‘modd’, for the odd pastry-dough snow that results when a path has been ploughed and salted, but not quite enough. On modd, a thin-wheeled bike like mine explores all the allowed degrees of freedom of its relative parts before jettisoning its ice-clogged chain and folding itself into the nearest ditch. Getting off and pushing is the only cure, which extends the tour beyond even my generous definition of a lunch break.

 

Liu Guosung, Untitled 1976

Liu Guosong, Untitled 1976

Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas

 

All the same, cabin fever boiled over last week, and I abandoned my desk for a prolonged slog around a nominally familiar loop. I found my haunts in a curious twilight zone, with the temperature-sensitive plants and trees all still dormant, but the wildlife, who count hours of daylight, doing their best to initiate spring.

Of all the classes of the animal kingdom, it was the birds who were making the most effort to drive out winter by brute force. In one mad five minute rush I was buzzed by three species of woodpecker, an impossibly cute family of long-tailed tits, several singleton nuthatches, five red kites, two common buzzards, and a pair of ravens aggressively driving off everything larger than a pigeon from what they had obviously decided was to be their wood alone. A sudden silence, usually my clodhopping fault, turned out to be caused by a juvenile golden eagle grumpily settling on an outskirting branch. There was even, off in the distance, an odd strangled gurgle that gave me hope that at least one capercallie has decided to ignore the conventional wisdom as to its preferred range and habitat, and settle down among my local broadleaves.

It is hard not to take such a profusion of riches personally: as a prodigal’s return, and as confirmation of the inspired rightness of occasional absenteeism. Even for an anti-romantic like me there is a peace to be had from catching up with old friends like the unphotographable overstood lime coppice, or the interestingly disintegrating hazel log where the path forks round a sump. The unusual presence of a long-lived snow layer only adds to the charm, and greatly helps the forensic task of teasing out all the missed out on news and gossip.

 

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Winter Landscape

Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Winter Landscape

from Masters of Photography

 

With no knowledgeable partner to challenge me, tracks in the snow become like far off mountain tops – nameable without fear of contradiction. The wing-spread imprint and hopping twofer track could be a magpie or a crow, but either will fit the day and the imagination well enough. Deer could be roe, fallow or (unlikely) red, and although hunters will snigger at my inability to tell them apart, exact categorisation is not the point of my journey. It is the humans who are unmistakable: kids’ wellies taking the path of maximum deviation, businesslike woodmen’s boots between stands of recently thinned trees, the tracks of daft fools wheeling bicycles through the middle of forests, and, at the entrance to my ultimate Thule, no less than four polished sets of bogged-down tyre holes where unwary drivers had ignored common sense and the scraping of ice on their underbodies and had to be dragged out backwards by tractor.

One animal track I have learned to distinguish is that of the hare. Our back garden is part of the domestic world, and if not visited too often by the neighbours’ cats, is quickly colonised by settler rabbits. The front is a wilder, more primeval place, and appropriately enough is grazed by their fey relatives, supermodel elfin animals with long limbs, exaggerated bone structure, and a gaze which frankly warns against any notions of sentimental closeness.

 

Bruno Liljefors, Winter Hare

Bruno Liljefors, Winter hare

 

The three-one-three-one-three-one rabbit hops are clearly different from the two-two ‘T’-shapes left by the hares, and although both coexist in places the rabbits give way to the hares as you leave the safe civilisation of the town and head out into the open fields of what with only a slight trace of bathos is known as the Lund Steppe. When the days are longer, and the crops still short, it is easy to find large groups of hares boxing their way across the germinating rapeseed and wheat. For now though, they are most obvious by their tracks. Individual footpads can be made out here and there, but wherever any distance is to be covered they merge into well-defined hareways which run like Roman roads clear to the horizon and beyond. In the woods, where the snow is deeper and softer, the sunken tracks form an intersecting net, spanning all of space without obviously going anywhere.

Our hares rarely wait as long as March before turning mad, and sure enough there were a few lines of sex-obsessed males hopping along in the wake of exasperated-looking females, the dance slowed to a more than usually comic act by the difficulty a thirty centimetre animal necessarily faces when attempting to run in fifty centimetres of loose snow. It is now over twenty years since careful observation demolished the view held since antiquity that boxing hares are males indulging in a rut, or that they only behave this way in March, but whatever the particulars, it is a rare humbling to be surrounded by twenty to thirty animals who normally would bolt from your presence at extremely high speed, but who now studiously ignore you as they complete a ritual whose purpose is at once totally obvious and wholly opaque.

It is no surprise that hares figure in so many genuinely ancient folk tales and foundation myths: the experience of the acutely uncanny without any trace of the sublime predates modern novelistic storytelling by millennia. That the experience is available to anyone who can be bothered to hop on a bike at lunchtime strikes me as a minor miracle, and provides a deep reassurance in a public world dominated by prepackaged, commercialised notions of what is worth feeling. I am not about to become a wildlife photographer, but the ease with which the ordinary can shock me if only I take the trouble to attend to it is a theme worth pursuing.

 

Ice angles

 

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Kertesz was a coppice man too

 

You will have to excuse me if I sound a little dizzy and lightheaded, I have just discovered RMN.

R.M.N.: Réunion des musées nationaux, which is French for ‘kiss goodbye to your good intentions”.  A cultural mega-site with it’s own photo archive of art and culture from national and municipal museums across France, as well as a few others like the Prussian Kulturbesitz and the British Museum.

 

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De Stael takes time off from footie for a different British favourite

 

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A strangely familiar scene by Hokusai

 

I would recommend some search terms, but I know my readership: some of you need no encouragement while others would be offended were I to suggest you did not know the name of your own obsession.  And then there are those it would be irresponsible to encourage. Like me.

 

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Bernhard Edmaier  Reef, Conception Island, Bahamas


When I am asked what super-power I would wish for (a question that comes up surprisingly often) I always chose the ability to fly.  X-ray vision, super-strength or infinite flexibility have a certain novelty charm, but flying would satisfy a deep pleasure that has been with me since childhood.  I love literally looking down.

There are aesthetic and intellectual pleasures to be had from a high viewpoint, as well as the sheer physical thrill of defying a natural law as fundamental as gravity.  The world is reduced to pure patterns, and those patterns can be read, puzzled over, wondered at, and understood.  Structures and relationships which are only vaguely grasped on the ground become self-evident once you see them from above, and the puzzling exceptions let you play at being an NSA imagery analyst as you figure them out.

 

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Nadar  Nadar and his wife in a balloon

From the Metropolitan Museum

 

Aerial photographs have been popular and newsworthy at least since Nadar and his wife crashed their balloon. Yann Arthus-Bertrand has created a commercial juggernaut out of his easy on the eye views, and there is a regular flood of “XXXX From The Air” books covering every location and price point.  I love them all, unreservedly, but in addition to the purely commercial photographers there are those who use the ‘wow’ factor of aerial photography to draw the viewer into a more subtle world.

Arthus-Bertrand, for example, seems incapable of shaking off an invisible little camera club judge, and habitually places a dollop of human interest exactly where the rule-of-thirds would dictate.  It gets tiresome after a while, and I prefer photographers like Bernhard Edmaier or my favourite Swedish nature photographer Hans Strand who stick with the gorgeous palette and sublime mood of mainstream commercial aerials, but have the nerve to create truly abstract images.

 

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Emmet Gowin  Dry Watering Hole, Magdalena, New Mexico 1998

From Changing the Earth


And then there are the self-aware Art photographers.  Often, their work suffers from a somewhat negative categorisation as issue driven, a labelling process helped by today’s universal need to back up a project with a predetermined concept, but for me at least the attraction is as much aesthetic as idealistic.  Photographers like Emmet Gowin and David Maisel have indeed found ways to be critically interested in land use without the self-indulgence of a strident hatchet job, but they also use composition and form in less than obvious ways, and Maisel’s sense of colour, strong yet nuanced, never fails to impress.

 

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David Maisel  Mining Project 5 (Butte Montana)

From The Mining Project


As photography though, even the art aerials are stuck in the early 1860s: everything in focus, everything comprehensible (if a little abstract), and all the emphasis on the thing photographed, not on the process of photography, or the mental state of the photographer, or any of the other favoured tropes of the contemporary schools.  In many ways it is a relief to enjoy such uncomplicated depiction, but it would also be interesting to see counter examples.  My own memories of the insides of small planes and helicopters are heavily coloured by noise and vibration and it would be instructive to incorporate the photographic environment into the resulting photographs.  Aerial photographs remind me in many ways of those wildlife films where the world’s most honed predator stares straight into the camera while the script doggedly pretends to observe without influencing.  I suspect most people feel helicopter time is just too expensive to waste on blurry pictures, but that, in a sense, is my point.

In any case, barring a lottery win or an encounter with a radioactive insect my work is unlikely to pose a challenge to any of these photographers for the foreseeable future.  However, I can play at least some of their games with the help of online mapping websites.  Google is the biggest, but until recently their datasets placed no less than three of my favourite places under heavy cloud cover, so local variants like hitta.se or the UK’s Multimap have also received heavy use.

It began when I spotted a jewel of a star fort while somewhere over The Netherlands on a flight to the UK.  Pre-internet I would have enjoyed the view, perhaps asked a few of my Dutch colleagues if they knew what I had been looking at, and left it at that.  However, I can now re-trace my route in Google Maps, find the fort, look at ground-based photos, and having deduced its name from the photo captions, check out its Wikipedia entry and look for articles in learned journals about its history and use.  Oh brave new world.  The only inefficiency in the process is finding the proper names of things once you have their coordinates.

Things can get out of hand.  When reading Simon Schama on Hermann the German and his slaughter of three Roman legions I ended up bingeing on a two-day trawl through Teutoburger Wald ephemera.  Still, with the help of wiki-hindsight the facts on the ground are easily tallied with grim historical reality, and the fatal bog that hemmed in the doomed Roman column is still clearly visible as a rosette of post-drainage field boundaries.

 

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Oxbows, kettle holes and pingos

Click the image, or go to Google Maps

 

It is no accident that many of the most fascinating aerial views involve hydrology.  Perhaps more than any other common landscape feature, water takes on an engaging combination of beauty and comprehensibility when seen from the air.  Whether it is the disappearing waterways of Schleswig Holstein, the overwhelmingly superfluous abundance of oxbow curlicues on the Ob river, or doomed Himalayan meltwater flowing north into the Taklamakan Desert, water always puts on an impressive show for the intrepid googlenaut.  The Lena delta has been quite literally a poster child for this phenomenon since early Landsat days, but a casual browse along the Siberian or Alaskan coasts reveals a lifetime’s supply of braided streams, kettle holes and pingos.  Selection suddenly seems superfluous.

And therin lies the problem: if everything is beautiful and fascinating, nothing is.  If there is no benefit to selection, there is no reason to abstract individual views, no reason to indulge in the activity of making photographs rather than simply browsing Google Earth.  Personally, I revolt at the idea of a hierarchy of landscape forms, especially the travel industry’s aristocracy of Most Awesome Destinations, but there must be some metric that makes the photographic or selective act worthwhile.

 

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Braque in Utah

Click the image, or go to Google Maps

 

The answer lies in individuality.  First the individuality of process: some people are simply better at winnowing interesting facts from large datasets, or are more motivated to do so.  Whatever the hype about collaborative cultures on the web, authoritative and popular editors and curators persist, and will continue to do so as long as the general public is averse to research using primary sources.  Second, there is an individuality of taste: it is simple enough to find views that look like the usual populist nature aerials, or even to re-visit the sites of established art projects, but if your tastes run to less recognised schools of photography and art, you are unlikely to find the work done for you. 

Fortunately, such issues are largely inconsequential, in the same way that looking at pictures of supermodels or high performance sports cars is inconsequential.  It’s just window shopping, and if Ferrari don’t make a model in my preferred shade of turquoise, there’s no harm done.   Armchair geographising only becomes pernicious if you allow it to mould your thought: for example, if you sit around moping that your local brook isn’t as wonderful as the mighty Yukon, or if you neglect your own beach because it doesn’t have a thousand mile coral reef just offshore.

 

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Scumbles, river and farm

Click the image, or go to Google Maps

 

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Drainage and peat burns

Click the image, or go to Google Maps

 

However, there is at least one consequential problem of aerial photography, and that is complacency.  It is too easy to believe that you have understood a landscape seen from above when all you have really done is fit it into a tidy set of predetermined categories.  When you walk over a landscape it has the chance to confront you with a reality different from your expectations, but pictures from space have only limited power to oppose interpretation in terms of what you already know, or, worse, confirmation of what you set out to find.

Trees illustrate the problem perfectly.  Looking at them only from above makes it very hard to see their general form, especially if they are in leaf.  Mountains have a similar problem, but height mapping and a three-dimensional perspective can resolve some of the ambiguity of a bird’s-eye view.  With a tree a straight-down single viewpoint simply does not record enough information.  The hedged fields of the Breton bocage are a perfect example.  From above, in early summer, the trees look much like any others: a googlenaut has no clue that they are in fact the weird and wonderful ragosses, a pollard form driven to extremes by local custom and tax laws.

 

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Bocage near Rennes in Brittany, France – Google Maps

 

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Les Ragosses seen from the side

Picture by Alain Amet from Philippe Bardel’s paper at the First European Colloquium on Pollards

 

To be fair, until recently Google Maps had a more traditional analyst’s view, taken in spring before the leaves emerge, and with low, slanting sunlight so that shadows reveal much about the terrain and the trees which is hidden in the summer view.  Google Earth does have the older data, but you have to explicitly go looking for it.   The tendency of Google’s primary data set to tend towards a summer holiday view of the landscape is an amusing analogue of the commercial landscape photograph, but highly frustrating for those who cannot afford their own plane or satellite.

Cartographers talk about establishing ‘ground truth': visiting sites to correlate the deductions of remote sensing with fieldwork.  The phrase should not be confused with the now slightly shop-worn military expression ‘the truth on the ground’, which has become a tool to browbeat civilians asking impertinent questions.  The mapper’s term is an intellectually respectable reminder that landscapes hold truths on many length scales, that restricting yourself to a single viewpoint is necessarily limiting, and that it pays to be humbly empirical when faced with the World’s extraordinary diversity of landforms.

 

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Tobey in Henan and Hubai

Click the image, or go to Google Maps

 

I am sure the professional image analysts are more expert than this autodidact Google gawper, but unless the NSA start offering classes in image interpretation for Everyman the fastest way to learn is to spend time comparing available imagery with how it feels to walk across the same landscape.  The superficially similar stripes of drainage ditches, medieval plough marks, water meadows, and post-clearances runrig tell very different stories to the botanist, the historian and the social scientist – and to the informed photographer.  A photographic response to such places is welcome of course to take a naive view, but my own preference is for photographers who pay attention to the messages written into the landscape.

Stillman Wagstaff, in a handy guide to reading the landscape written by William Cronon’s students, reinforces this point, that you should ‘toggle the scale at which you frame your attention’.  It’s a lovely phrase for an important process, one which I try to keep in mind while working as a photographer immersed in the here and now.  Toggling between timescales can be equally rewarding, and is as important, but that is perhaps a subject for another post.