Tag Archives: Photography

Words and pictures (1): Other people’s photos

SweetCares

Fiction with photos?

I’ve just been reading William Boyd’s  Sweet Caress which I picked up when I spotted its photography connections. It’s about a girl growing up in the twenties who, after a family trauma, joins her uncle as a  society photographer in London then unshackles herself from an unhealthy relationship to reinvent herself several times over and in as many places: in from Berlin to Mexico,  New York and ultimately Vietnam.  It didn’t reel me in straight away and I noted a consensus amongst Amazon reviewers that it was ‘over-long’. I would say ‘episodic’ is more the case, but it does take its time to get where it’s going. On the other hand, that isn’t always a bad thing.

It’s a straightforward chronological narrative(contrast Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life), told by Amory Clay as she looks back on the different lives she has led from her final abode – a cottage in a remote corner of the Highlands. For a while the lack of a driving plot frustrated me, but I was eventually drawn in to this account of a restless soul who happens to be in the right place at the right time to capture iconic images of the twentieth century.

sweet caress photoInitially, one of the barriers to my enjoyment was the use of photographs incorporated into the narrative. They look like contemporary snapshots (their graininess is emphasised by being printed on ordinary book paper) and are labelled as illustrations of Amory Clay’s life and work.  But, wait a minute. This is fiction. These look like authentic illustrations but where did they come from and, most of all, why on earth are they there? The ‘acknowledgements’ refer to the many real photographers mentioned in the book but not to these photographs. Mr Boyd is either playing with the truth or teasing the reader or both, and I’m not sure I like it.

There was nothing for it but to ask Google what was going on, and it turns out that William Boyd is a collector of ‘found’ photographs – i.e. photos whose origin is unknown, photos lost by their original owners. As the Telegraph interviewer puts it,

These uncredited images of unknown subjects collected by Boyd over many years, originally without intent – are now freighted with narrative significance.

Aha – I think of Boyd arranging his motley collection of photos into a kind of story board and immediately I like Sweet Caress better than I did. But no, it appears he had the story in his head and went looking for  these illustrations, occasionally letting them take the plot in a new direction. Boyd likes trying to make fiction ‘seem so real you forget it is fiction’. Isn’t all fiction doing that same thing? Isn’t it possible to do this with just words? But the explanation does stop me fretting.

Maybe it’s this new found knowledge or maybe it’s coincidental, but from this point on I find  myself at peace with the book. I enjoy picking it up in a very busy fortnight to see where and when we’re heading next. Its episodic nature (very many chapters begin ‘I remember’)  suits my mindset.

Although Boyd claims to be ‘technically inept’ (a bit like me then!), there’s plenty to interest the photographer –  armchair or otherwise. For instance his heroine claims there are only thirteen genres of photography (that many?!) and I like the way she explains her preference for monochrome images.

The black and white image was in some ways photography’s defining feature – that was where its power lay and colour diminished its artifice: paradoxically, monochrome – because it was so evidently unnatural – was what made a photograph work best.

After so many months spent in the company of early photographs, I’ll drink to that.

Ironically, the paperback edition I read had a much more colourful (and to me less suitable) cover, but don’t let that put you off if you fancy a photographic adventure.

St Andrews Photography Festival – being part of it

“Celebrating 175 Years of Photography in the home of Scottish Photography”.

invitation

By invitation!

When I found out about the first St Andrews Photography Festival taking place this summer, I had a pang of regret that I wouldn’t be there to see it. However, in an unexpected  turn of events, I will actually  be part of it as I’ve been invited to read my historical fiction in a festival event on September 9th. I can’t think of anything more special than to take my work to the place where the story began, and present it to people who share my enthusiasm for early photography and its exponents.

I realise most of you will know about this via my outpourings on social media, but with the festival kicking off on August 1st (my event is Sept 9th) I thought it would be good to post about it here, especially for those who aren’t on Facebook where the festival has its main site.

Here’s a link to the full programme of exhibitions and events put together by the University Library Special Collections Department and running from August 1st to September 11th.

StAndrewsPhotographyFestivalProgramme2016

Please share it with anyone you know who has an interest in early or contemporary photography, especially if they happen to be in or near Fife.

And here’s a description of my event.

hillbell_st andrews

In Sunshine and In Shadow
Stories surrounding the photographs of Robert Adamson and David Octavus Hill, 1843-48

Fiction writer and St Andrews graduate Ali Bacon brings her own words to the calotypes of Hill and Adamson and lends a voice to those who sat for them.
In this series of readings you will meet Elizabeth Johnston Hall of Newhaven, Jane Adamson (sister to John and Robert) and literary critic Elizabeth Rigby, and hear how an encounter with early photography changed all of their lives.
Presented with illustrations from the University Special Collections.

It’s on Friday September 9th, 5.30 – 6.30 pm,
Martyrs Kirk Research Library
80 North Street, KY16 9 Saint Andrews

Again, I know very few of you can be there, but do spread the word. If you can be there, please register for a free ticket.

This post will be top of my blog page for a few weeks to come!

 

Only connect: sun and chemistry at Lacock

Lacock signResearch can take us to some odd places but a perfect English village on a perfect summer’s day was not a bad result  at Lacock Abbey where I was parked up and fuelled by a stiff Americano before the gates had even  opened for Sunday’s demonstrations of  early photography. Of course I’d visited Lacock before, including once since this whole thing began, but mindsets change, new things become significant and the brain becomes ready to reabsorb some of the detail that it just might have discarded along the way. Revision was long overdue. In fact a lot of what I saw and heard yesterday I did already ‘know’ from previous experience and reading, but seeing things in the round (camera obscura, mousetrap camera, photogenic drawings) always makes a difference, not to mention the vital ingredient – meeting experts and other enthusiasts.

Alex Burnham I had Victorian photographer Alex Burnham (in costume and also in the know) cornered very early on, which was maybe just as well in view of the rising temperatures.

He talked me through what was going on in his mysterious darkroom on wheels, , then it was on to see man-in-hot-blue-tent Richard Cynan Jones who explained the differences in the chemistry of these fab photogenic drawings.

 

photogenic drawingsIn fact what began as a quick chat became more of a pop-up conference (?) when Richard and I discovered a mutual interest in events in Edinburgh and St Andrews in the 1840s.
At this point I had more or less taken root in front of richard’s tent, with one passer by assuming we were – ahem – an item (!) Oops, sorry about that, Richard, but there’s nothing quite like stumbling on someone who cares about the same things, particularly if they are of no particular significance to the rest of the world!

calotype graphicTime for a lunch/hydration break during which I visited the museum (I particularly like this exhibit – no excuse for forgetting the process now) and amassed a few more questions for Messrs Burnham and Jones.

 

It was an absolute pleasure to be at Lacock yesterday and I’d like to thank not only Richard and Alex (please check them out, especially if you need a historic photographer any time!) but also the other NT staff and volunteers who set up the day and kept loads of adults and children informed and entertained.

Since seeing the wet collodion process demonstrated back in May, I’m struck more and more by how the medium of photography has been changed by the digital age and it’s good to know that historic processes are, if anything, increasing in popularity. Why? I’ll leave that for a more philosophical moment, but now that I’ve begun to revisit my research sources I think I might use this site to list a few more more of them. No point in keeping it all to myself.

To start the ball rolling here are a few that cropped up after Lacock and also after the Bristol Festival of Photography which somehow failed to get a blog post of its own.

Historic Photographic Processes:

Calotype Process (video reconstruction, Richard Cynan Jones on Lacock FB page)

Making a Salt Print (St Paul’s Photogrphy Centre on Youtube)

Early Photography equipment

Alex Burnham

Michael Schaaf, Wet Collodion Photography

Richard Cynan Jones and on Flickr

Richard Cynan Jones
Richard Cynan Jones

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why I’m Here

Not a moment for philosophical reflection but, after our evening with Lucy English, a quick plug . This book of photographs by Sally Mundy and poems by Lucy is just as intriguing and delectable as it looks on her web page.
If you have any interest in people and the places they go, it will appeal. if you live in Somerset or just happen to like its hidden corners, you’ll absolutely love it.
Available on Amazon now and in bookshops soon.

Bristol, A Second Look

No excuses for doing some PR on behalf of DD whose picture is a finalist in the above-mentioned photography competition.

Other finalists can be seen at the Second Look Myspace Site but this is Ellie’s photo.

Picture J 'Hidden Entrance'

Hidden Entrance, by Ellie Bacon

Even if you don’t want to vote for Ellie, do take a look at the other entries on Myspace. They’re also printed in this week’s Venue magazine (not the online version) and on display in Cyan Arts in St. Nicholas Market, Bristol.

To place your vote, email

bristolasecondlook@hotmail.co.uk

And if you want to vote for Ellie, mention ‘Picture J – Hidden Entrance’!