Hindsight into Breathturns

The meanings in 2020: Images and Beyond

A list of 10 cardinal images from 2020 (all already on my portfolio website, but reproduced again below):

1) Clematis Still Life

2) Double Carrots

3) After the Ritual 1

4) Bute Beech with Stone Circle and Arran

5) Landscape Window

6) Cubbington Lament

7) Blenheim Oak

8) Daeda’s Wood 2

9) West Kennet Long Barrow

10) The Leaves Beneath

What usually happens is that (some kinds of) photographers like to post an end-of-year celebration of their ‘top images’ (via social media likes and engagements etc.)  I stopped doing this a while back, because I wanted to get more out of my image-making.

The kinds of things that have happened in 2020 have affected all aspects of my thinking and work (including professionally as an academic: most obviously through lockdown/blended teaching, and the inability to work consistently on a pre-determined project during a period of study leave) – in usually depressive and negatively heightened ways.  But part of the deal with the pandemic is that it has also allowed some benefits of increased introspection to be more markedly felt and acted upon.  These have included photographic thinking, alongside the increased interlinking between my photography and my academic writing: in part because of fresh attentiveness to what my photography can achieve, and in part because of new intellectual horizons provided by poetry and philosophy.

So in what follows I will be discussing some of my photographic accomplishments this year, but not in the usual media-hungry way: rather more reflectively.  While the year isn’t yet at an end, and there may be some more photographs in the offing, I think I have a representative enough sample.  There’s hopefully a bit of something for everyone in what follows…

[First, to get this out of the way ahead of what follows: from a technical perspective – the kind of thing that all photo-geeks will understand and welcome, even if they do not admit it! – 2020 has provided some, in fact, rather welcome developments in my photography (all to do with film photography, naturally).

            Lockdown allowed me more time to experiment with alternative processes via 10×8, to produce some of my most treasured photographs and to hone my film-testing exclusively for prints (along with the fuller recognition that exposing B&W film for scanning can admit a degree of sloppiness that traditional printing will simply often reject). 

            During this period, my Mamiya RZ67 camera was recovered and returned to me by Thames Valley Police (after having been stolen from the boot of my car while I was out with the 10×8 in June 2019): thus allowing me to understand what I like about this camera that I don’t get with the Hasselblad 500C/M that temporarily replaced it (and which, hopefully, I can trade in soon- ish… : to put it simply, I prefer the 6×7 landscape format, much prefer the ground glass and bellows focusing esp. for close-up work, and prefer the effects the 110mm f/2.8 lens can produce).  

            I also finally settled on a complementary small-format system for quicker, more impulsive images than any of my other film cameras allow, a marvellous little Leica M3 with the superb 50mm Dual-range summicron with goggles (allowing close-up photos in ways that other Leica lenses do not): I still find it mind-boggling that a camera system made in the 1950s could be this stellar in 2020.  I’m still to round out this system with a wide-angle lens (and perhaps a second body) but it has allowed me to make images at times (i.e. after dark) and in places that my other cameras would not.  While hand-holding my RZ down to 1/30” does work just about (but probably only well enough with the 50mm lens), I can get the M3 down to 1/15” at f/2, and with pushed Delta 3200 this is great.  I’m also happier digitizing 35mm film now than before, meaning that I’m not seeing vast improvements in the step-up in format size to the 6×6 Hasselblad – though I still find 35mm film tediously fiddly to digitize (I scan my 35mm and MF film with my Nikon D800E, stitching images to produce even more resolution; I only use the Epson V850 for 10×8).  I also experimented, quite successfully in the end, with some different Caffenol recipes for developing black and white film, in an attempt to be marginally more environmentally conscious with home film-development.

            Other things: I got back to working with colour film in large format, including developing it.  The results have generally been very positive.  I still, though, have no colour printer of any kind, so am still limited (in quite a good way?) to making 10×8 contact prints.  I’ve meant to get some 10×8 colour images printed large but still haven’t got round to it.

            And finally I got myself organised properly and set up a portfolio website for a representative sample of my photographic projects and work esp. in more recent times: https://davidfearnphotography.co.uk]

On to the images and further reflections:

Photography in 2020 has generally been in black and white, creatively influenced by John Blakemore and Fay Godwin, and more than usually obsessed with the rendering of a sense of both time and of space.  Meanwhile, Paul Kenny’s conceptual photography has inspired me intellectually.

1) Clematis Still Life (10×8 Argyrotype)

Being stuck at home at Easter (instead of a booked trip to Skye) was very strange and discomfiting, but did at least allow me to make one of my strongest ever images: a 10×8 macro of a Clematis flower from our front window.

            Although this was made and developed before I’d perfected my FP4+ film-testing for the argyrotype process with which this print is made, the dark tonality is incredibly affecting, and the framed print is now proudly displayed on the wall of our dining room.   I took a leaf out of John Blakemore’s book in relation to thinking with what is at hand, and indeed who could ask for a better kind of photographic mentor than John for thinking and working within the limitations of one’s home?  More on reflecting on what is at hand later.

            If I were ever to start selling prints of my work, an ordered series of this image would probably be the start – if I can replicate the quality of this image in subsequent hand-developed contact prints (and possibly work on washing them in mild Selenium for longevity, something I’ve not yet started with).  I also of course have zero clue about pricing for these: but I’d probably reckon on £100-£150 (??) for a hand-made argyrotype print given the complexity of the entirely analogue process, the hit-and-miss nature of the exercise, and the expense of the materials and equipment used.  I’d also probably want to augment it with others like it – if I could consistently replicate the quality of this I’d be delighted.

2) Double Carrots (10×8 Argyrotype)

Another lockdown macro, slightly more experimental than before, as a double-exposure to create a spooky quasi-fictional aspect to the image – heavily influenced by John Blakemore’s insights and techniques, that seems to reflect well the strange temporality of lockdown in addition to providing a record of sorts of the home-grown produce from our back garden during this time.  Another process to try other subjects with.

3) After the Ritual 1

An image made in local fields on the Leica from the end of November.

Local fields seem to have been taken over by maize in recent times, a crop which feels rather alien to Oxfordshire and brings to my mind, for whatever reason, horror in popular culture; what is left behind after harvest certainly feels rather more desolate than the usual stubble.  Coupled with extreme grain and small format via 35mm Delta 3200 film in the M3, the ritual aspect of farming as process seems to take on a much bleaker, far more forboding connotation, helpfully added by ‘Ritual’ being the title of the original novel upon which the Wicker Man was based.  

            It’s thus an example of the deeper environmental thinking I’ve been doing this year while striving to avoid a ‘kneejerk social conscience reaction’ (the withering critique of one of my attempts at writing poetry when I was at school many moons ago: ouch!).  In this sense, this photography finds a place in a series called “Landscape Windows” I’m developing, that seems to speak as a variety of responses to Fay Godwin’s Land.  Very much unfinished business, especially because I’ve been unable to explore the Derbyshire Peak District this year at all, including actually making exposures on a couple of compositions I already had in mind.

            The title of this photograph also speaks to me in relation to photography itself: as both recording of time and interpretation of space always seems to convey some inbuilt sense of belatedness at odds with the immediacy of photographic visual appeal.  Something I’ve been thinking about in other deeper and wider ways: see further later.

4) Beach Tree with Stone Circle and Arran, Bute

This image and the next one are from our annual summer holiday to the isle of Bute in Scotland.  It still now feels rather extraordinary that we got there at all – and the safety window started closing very fast after we returned.  I’d originally intended to photograph only the stone circle – and still indeed have one undeveloped sheet of 10×8 black and white film for that; but I almost immediately recognized that I could make the huge beech tree into a great subject, especially as another bonus of lockdown was the sourcing of an amazing (if still v expensive) second-hand Rodenstock 240mm lens for 10×8 – a medium wide-angle to slot in between my Nikkor 150 super-wide and Nikkor-W 300 normal lens.  This image was made with Kodak Portra 160, elevating the light of Scotland into something altogether different, and also serving to remind me that I should take a lot more photographs of trees on 10×8: a perfect marriage.

5) Landscape Window

This image is made perhaps only 100 yards from the previous image: the broken window of a back-garden shed of a run-down cottage near Etrick Bay on Bute.  I was immediately drawn not only to the broken and damaged quality of the scene, but also the reflectiveness of the glass and the way it picked up the sky and the line of hillside behind me.  It also automatically felt like a Fay Godwin-style image, the kind of work I had hoped to have been making much earlier in the year in England: a record of a kind of political landscape where people have an uncertain but nevertheless seemingly controlling and at times looming presence; and also raising the question (as ever, we should believe) of what photographing the landscape does with our understanding of what landscape actually is. 

            Incidentally, this image is not one it would have been at all easy to make without a view camera.  I needed a large range of front movements (both shift and rise) both to keep the lines of the window perfectly vertical and to avoid having the reflection of either myself or the 10×8 camera in the shot.   This shot on Velvia 50 colour slide film but then converted to B&W in post to provide the punch of mood and contrast needed.

6) Cubbington Lament

A much more obviously political subject: the marked destructiveness of 2020 in short-termist environmental ways in England as evidenced by the unnecessary HS2 project – as lamented and remembered here in Warwickshire.

            A notable success with my recovered Mamiya RZ: I had hoped to visit Cubbington for a 10×8 photograph of the famous Pear Tree before its grotesque demise.  But I was too late: this was intended as site recce on the way to visit a friend, but ended up being all I got given that the fences, bulldozers, hard hats, and wood-shredding machines had already taken over.

7) Blenheim Oak

After an unnecessarily unpleasant and curtailed visit to central Oxford at the start of October I beat a hasty retreat and made for the extensive grounds of Blenheim Palace to look for safety among trees.  I was delighted to find such a rich and alluring subject.

8) Daeda’s Wood 2

An image from March, just before first lockdown.  A recording of and connection with the local that Covid times have allowed deeper engagement with; the power of 10×8 to transform the mundane.

9) West Kennet Long Barrow with Silbury Hill

Another great success with colour negative film on 10×8, elevating and transforming well-known subject. Opportunities to walk the Avebury landscape extensively have again been curtailed, but this again serves as a provocation to get me back there when I can.  Among other things, I have an unfulfilled desire to explore the Wiltshire Neolithic landscape along the lines of the contemporary painter Philip Hughes with his excellent book Tracks.

10) The Leaves Beneath

One further, and most recent, success with colour on 10×8, but with a different intensity.  This is an image that, in its hyper-real richness of colour and detail, affords reflection on the very nature of attentiveness to the seemingly trivial things that lie at our feet.  There’s a kind of ethicality of close-reading being alluded to here, something I’ve been very much drawn to consider in my academic work in recent times, in ways that pulls photography and technological modernity into the mix along with ancient poetry to question our relations to nature and vice versa; and of course, attention to what lies at our feet is already a Pindaric image: notably Pythian 3.59–60. The questions of how to articulate the nature of our relation to both the environment and to antiquity are both very pressing indeed right now, given the burgeoning work in environmental humanities and in classical reception studies including the more conceptual and philosophically inflected work on anachronism and temporality.  This is something I was able to expend a good amount of energy on in lockdown, through encounters with Pindaric lyric poetry, the photography of Paul Kenny, and environmental philosophy and thought (especially Tim Morton’s Hyperobjects; also more recently Amitav Gosh’s the Great Derangement).  This resulted in an experimental paper, ‘Seaworks: Beyond Mirrors and Windows’, on close reading, lyric temporalities, environmental ethics, earth art and conceptual photography, and Pindaric attentiveness, especially in Olympian 10: and perhaps marks the beginning of another new intellectual project.

Thinking with the natural environment and its evocations in poetry and creative writing has also drawn me to begin to acquaint myself properly with Paul Celan.  I’d been professionally and more generally aware of Celan for quite some time, including most obviously by some stimulating thinking by fellow Classicist Mark Payne (an otherwise rather neglected paper in Modern Philology for 2007); and I already have the bilingual collected poems in the Penguin edition.  But the recent publications by Paul Joris really sent me back (and forward) to encountering his work more deeply: a process that has taken me by a degree of surprise.  The most arresting aspect of Celan to me seems to be the lyric paradox of the combination of deep embeddedness in the history of the twentieth century’s bleakest events and an unwillingness to allow poetry and forms of language to be shackled by history – the ahistorical or re-historicizing aspect or exemplarity of language and world that seems to be Celan’s most lasting legacy; and what seems particularly relevant is the complex figuration through the scientific terminology of nature and geology.  This seems interestingly present and at issue in the majority of his writings, especially around the time of and after the Meridian speech. A veritable treasure trove of poetic thinking.

For me, professionally and photographically, all this is important.  It speaks to the potentially liberating paradoxes of photography, the extent of the indexicality of which (that is, the extent to which photographs refer to things in the world: an issue that might seem trivially non-problematic but in fact is not) has been the matter of great dispute.  It also helps me to rethink the question of the relation between antiquity and modernity, given my sense of the connections, in terms of lyric form and communication, between ancient lyric poets and modern ones too often underappreciated and thus tending to solidify disciplinary walls between ancient and modern that are unhelpful for everyone, including for thinking around classical reception.

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