Archive for the ‘Process’ Category



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.





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.




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.





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.




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.





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.





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.





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.





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 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.




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.



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.



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.






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.




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.




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.




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.




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.



Usine Toyota No. 7, Valenciennes
Stéphane Couturier



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



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





cemetery of other men’s bastards let
wane and peter out
because I am jealous of the Muse’s fornications
and over timid to be a cuckold!


Meanwhile you
have raised a sufficient family of versicles;
like you in the main.

Basil Bunting, On Reading X’s collected works



Sally Gall, Quadrant.



David Burdeney, Mercator’s Projection



Mike Smith, Gray, Tennessee