Thursday, 28 November 2013


Thick might seem an odd word for these, for the big, pale, blurry, fragile images taken with a pinhole camera, for the standing figure, outside one picture, inside another, both solid and transparent. It was an exhibition of works by Karen Stuke, depicting places described in Sebald's masterwork Austerlitz about a man brought to Britain from Prague on a Kindertransport, his adult discovery of his past and voyage into it, the huge effect upon his personality and life, his recounting of his story to the narrator. It's a long, pale, swirling story, hauntingly glimpsed in these photos (see them all here), which were deeply atmospheric in themselves, all the more so in the harsh beauty of the Wapping Project, a cavernous, largely windowless former hydraulic power station, and all the more so to the captivated reader, like myself, of Sebald's work.



I was thinking of the way that social scientists, ethnographers, speak of 'thick description', a build-up of multiple layers and perspectives through which we may arrive at new insights. It starts with the book, a meandering, but intense and gripping narrative. No, it starts with the real places, historical narratives and found pictures that the book evokes and the visceral, unbearable, memories attached to these. And it spreads, alludes, moves and inspires, as writers and artists continue to make works in response to Sebald's; as readers and viewers are drawn in, tossed around, left floating, yearning, glimpsing pictures of our own, like this one through the window of the old power station on my way out.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

To frame or not to frame

A big thing in 'street photography', I suppose, is the lack of a frame, the freedom from it, the capturing of a random, unboundaried flash of space and time that is in some way affecting. But the point here, of course, is precisely the frame of door and window shapes behind the figure. She's walking past the front entrance of Tate Modern and the framed figure fortuitously evokes the pictures inside - perhaps was only noticed because, approaching the entrance, I was already 'seeing' the paintings I'd come to look at.

Monday, 18 November 2013


Why this impulse to tilt the camera - experienced before, but only in autumn? I suppose it's the sensation of trees meeting the ground as the leaves keep falling, of being tipped inexorably into winter.

Thursday, 14 November 2013



  Beached on the wet footpath - as pink, damp and fleshy as a creature from the sea.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Vermeeresque again

Oh dear. Since I saw the film about Vermeer, they're everywhere: quiet, luminous women, reading or writing by a window, looking like a painting. What a cliché. But a sweet one, and all the sweeter when so many sit or stand or walk absorbed in their phones or tablets: that absent, abstracted indifference to surroundings and compulsive inability to put the damned thing down. Seeing someone read a book or write in a notebook never feels as alienating. Yes, of course they may be equally abstracted, and of course good stuff, as well as mindless or super-stressful, proceeds through all those 'devices'. Still, a proliferation of dwellers in the global city who evoke an old Dutch painting seems no bad thing.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Friday, 8 November 2013

South London Botanical Institute

And before they become too drastically unseasonal here are some photos from a recent visit to the South London Botanical Institute. This big, boxy red-brick Victorian villa was purchased in 1909 by Allan Octavian Hume, a curious, energetic man, returned from a career serving the British Empire in India. He was one of the "least worst" colonialists, it seems, instinctively fostering welfare over repression; and when not at work he embraced and explored the sub-continent, making social and political contacts and collecting, collecting, as they did then, descriptions and specimens from the natural world - especially birds.

Back in London and with no exotic birds to shoot and stuff, his voracious attention refocused on
botany. This house and garden became the home of a fast-growing collection, assiduously cultivated, preserved, recorded - an exceptional work of its kind. Amazingly, it has survived intact as a modest, independent charity. The house has not changed much. It's spare and atmospheric, with rooms full of filing cabinets housing an extensive herbarium centred on a great number of fine, hundred-year-old specimens. The latest of many volunteers work endlessly and painstakingly to conserve the collection and most recently to check and digitally scan each sheet for inclusion in a national, publicly accessible computer database, herbaria@home. Other volunteers tend the garden, teach botanical drawing and the histories of medical herbalism and Victorian naturalism to children and adults alike. This is a precious place.


Thursday, 7 November 2013

In sunshine and in rain

The exhibition we saw at Kew Gardens in September of botanical paintings by Rory McEwen was
memorable, especially the paintings from the last year of his life - precise and intense depictions of dying, decaying leaves, titled not by species, but by where they fell. These were images that lingered, cooking slowly. They bubbled to the surface as I trudged and skidded in the following weeks on fallen leaves, often stopping, in the street, in the rush, in the rain, to take photos. They're still bubbling.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Colours of the wind


an early sunset
flickers between fire and ice -
colours of the wind

Friday, 1 November 2013

Mindfulness of leaves

The rain was heavy. Fallen leaves, plastered into pavement picture-frames, curl and glisten as they start to dry - settling into new, more muted, more translucent colours.