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Shropshire Diary – Photobook

2009 was a year of quiet introspection for me. Working away from home in Shropshire, I had many long evenings to fill, alone with my camera. Every evening I would upload my images onto Flickr, and I have some wonderful memories of sharing those pictures and receiving inspiring comments from people around the world.

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It took me a long time to recognise that these pictures were documenting an important period in my life. Looking back at them, I remember this time as one of great inner torment and frustration for various reasons, and I am thankful to my Flickr friends for giving me some light during those dark days.

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It wasn’t until ten years later, in 2019, that I finally realised these images needed to be brought together as a small photobook so that I would always have a record of them. I had been struggling with ideas for my first photobook for a long time, and when I realised the answer had been staring me in the face for ten years, everything suddenly made sense.

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The first proof of these books is on its way to me as I write this post. I’m excited to see how they look and feel in my hands as a physical bound volume. If they work, as I feel they will, I intend to order a small run of them and offer copies to anyone who wants to look back in time with me at these quiet moments in my life.

I still practice what I call Diary Photography, and have produced many thousands of images over the last ten years. It probably makes up my largest body of work to-date, and I am certain I will continue to add to this for the rest of my life.

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Notes from Susan Sontag On Photography

I recently came into possession of a copy of Susan Sontag’s On Photography, and was delighted to see it contained hand-written notes made in pencil by a previous owner. It has that wonderful musty ‘old book’ smell, and I’m finding it fascinating to go through, picking up on some of the notes and highlights.

The copy itself isn’t that old. It’s a Penguin Modern Classic with a reissued date of 2008, so it’s no older than that. The original was first published in 1977.

Essay #1: In Plato’s Cave

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Another interesting underline in the first essay:

  • The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed.

Essay #3: Melancholy Objects

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Some more interesting underlines from Essay three:

  • Photography is the inventory of mortality.
  • Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people.
  • Photographs turn the past into an object of tender regard, scrambling moral distinctions.
  • A photograph could also be described as a quotation.
  • Photographs – and quotations – seem, because they are taken to be pieces of reality, more authentic than extended literary narratives.
  • Photographs furnish instant history, instant sociology, instant participation.
  • A set of photographs that freezes moments in a life or a society contradicts their form, which is a process, a flow in time.
  • Life is not about significant details, illuminated in a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are.

The following seems to sit very nicely with documentary photography, which I’m particularly interested in:

The photographer’s ardour for a subject has no essential relation to its content or value, that which makes a subject classifiable. It is, above all, an affirmation of the subject’s thereness; its rightness (the rightness of a look on a face, of the arrangement of a group of objects), which is the equivalent of the collector’s standard of genuineness; its quiddity – whatever qualities make it unique.

Essay #4: The Heroism of Vision

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Some interesting underlines from essay four:

  • It became clear that there was not just a simple, unitary activity called seeing (recorded by, aided by cameras) but “photographic seeing”, which was both a new way for people to see, and a new activity for them to perform.
  • The proper moment is when one can see things (especially what everyone has already seen) in a fresh way.
  • Moralists who love photographs always hope that words will save the picture.

A particularly wonderful line that really speaks to me about my own practice:

Photographic seeing meant an aptitude for discovering beauty in what everybody sees, but neglects as too ordinary.

Essay #5: Photographic Evangels

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Some interesting underlines from essay five:

  • Despite the efforts of contemporary photographers to exorcise the spectre of art, something lingers. For instance, when professionals object to having their images printed to the edge of the page in books or magazines, they are invoking the models inherited from another art: as paintings are put in frames, photographs should be framed in white space.
  • Photography, like pop art, reassures viewers that art isn’t hard; it seems to be more about subjects than about art.
  • Photography entered the scene as an upstart activity, which seemed to encroach on and diminish an accredited art: painting.

Essay #6: The Image World

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Sontag’s essays on photography are considered one of the classic starting points for anyone wanting to learn more about photography than simply how exposure, focusing, and post-processing works.

To-date I have read most of the essays, and have found them hard-going and academic, often needing to re-read sections multiple times in order to understand what is being suggested. Having said that, I do believe what I have read has made me think a bit more about why, what, and how I photograph something – and I am now especially more aware of the thorny issues of representation and otherness.

The book ends with a ‘Brief Anthology of Quotations’, and I will end this post with my own favourite quote, by American photographer George Tice. This pretty much sums up my own photographic experiences:

As I progressed further with my project, it became obvious that it was really unimportant where I chose to photograph. The particular place simply provided an excuse to produce work … you can only see what you are ready to see – what mirrors your mind at that particular time.

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Forever Autumn in Swindon

In late 2018 I began work on a three-month assignment in Swindon, Wiltshire. The following photographs were made while staying in the town. This post is titled after the song from War of The Worlds famously recorded by Justin Hayward, who was born in Dean Street.

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The sun rises over Lydiard Fields, Swindon, 2019.

The M4 motorway is one of the main arteries into Swindon. Junction 16 exits at Lydiard Fields, a business park which takes its name from nearby Lydiard Park, a historic country estate with a large Palladian house that is the ancestral home of the Viscounts Bolingbroke. From here it is just a short drive of ten minutes into the centre of Swindon, making it a popular site for large hotels.

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Covered pedestrian bridge, Swindon, 2019.

The railway line running from Bristol to London slices through the centre of Swindon, hence there are numerous overhead bridges in the town. This one is a covered walkway which leads from the Hawksworth Trading Estate directly into the station, convenient for rail passengers who wish to park their cars on the northwest side of the line, avoiding the busy town centre traffic. At dawn the rising sun illuminates the bridge.

An interesting fact about Swindon: the town is not one, but two – the part known as Old Town which was the original settlement, and the new town which developed with the railway works during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The two towns were joined in 1900.

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Melissa’s Suitcase, Swindon, 2019.

Many large businesses and UK government organisations have sites in Swindon, which means a constant influx of business travellers entering the town and staying in hotels for the duration of the working week. Some weeks it is difficult to find a hotel room at a reasonable rate, simply due to the volume of people staying in the town. The threat of Brexit has already had an impact on the local economy, with the planned closure of the Honda plant leading to the loss of c. 3500 jobs.

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Rugs hung out to dry, Swindon, 2019.

Swindon is a town that suffers from a poor reputation. While it may be true that some areas of the town are considered deprived, that is not a blanket description that can be applied. Old Town is showing strong indications of gentrification, and in other parts of town there are heartening signs that a community spirit exists, and that people still trust their neighbours.

An interesting fact about Swindon: the town was originally a Saxon settlement positioned on top of a hill. The Domesday Book refers to Swindon as ‘Suindune’, which comes from the Anglo-Saxon words ‘swine’ and ‘dun’, together meaning ‘pig hill’. Rumour has it that pigs were once allowed to run through the streets to celebrate the coming of the 5th New Moon of the year.

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Renovation, Swindon, 2019.

A lot of regeneration and development work has taken place in Swindon in recent years. Since the ‘Planning Swindon Together’ blueprint for transforming Swindon was unveiled in 2012, many changes have taken place in the town centre. Not all proposals have been good, such as the plans for the development of a tower block in Old Town, which were quickly withdrawn following a public outcry. The spirit of regeneration seems to have captured hearts and minds, and renovation work has spread to residential areas of the town.

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Swindon, 2019.

Many people describe Swindon as a ‘rough’ town, and crime statistics suggest there are problem areas, with many reported crimes being of a violent nature. However, despite its reputation there are many other towns in Britain with more severe issues – including higher crime rates and higher levels of deprivation. During the time I worked in Swindon I never experienced anything negative other than my own preconceived notions based on hearsay, and never felt threatened in any way.

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No Parking, Swindon, 2019.

Many of Britain’s towns and streets were built in a time before the motor car. As we embraced this mode of travel during the 20th century, our roads became increasingly clogged not just with commuter traffic, but also with parked cars. Swindon is no exception, and many older residential areas cannot cater for the modern two-car household, which inevitably leads to frustration for residents who are rarely able to park outside their own homes.

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Garages, Swindon, 2019.

When Tony Blair visited Toothill Community Centre in 2006 to launch a campaign against anti-social behaviour, his famous pressure hose pose left Swindon with a reputation for having streets painted with mindless graffiti. Swindon Council started to offer a graffiti removal service, and the war against what is seen by some as vandalism continues, but at high cost for the council. Despite appearing to be a modern problem, Graffiti is nothing new, and examples exist which date back to ancient Egypt and the Roman empire.

An interesting fact about Swindon: as well as some examples of genuine street art, the town has lots of public art, including the Sculpture Trail which features an impressive statue of Diana Dors at Shaw Ridge Leisure Park.

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Street sign with shopping trolley, Swindon, 2019.

Three hundred miles north of Swindon in the city of Glasgow there is an equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington that has been adorned with a traffic cone since the 1980s. In 2013, Glasgow City Council estimated the annual cost of removing cones to be £10000 per annum, and put forward plans to raise the plinth to prevent cones being placed. There was a public outcry leading to withdrawal of the plans, and at least one cone remains to this day. Was the careful placement of this shopping trolley on top of a No Stopping sign in Swindon simply a minor act of vandalism? What is it that elevates such an act into art or iconic status?

An interesting fact about Swindon: there are several iconic buildings in the town, including the David Murray John tower, the Motorola building, and the Spectrum building. The latter two featured in the James Bond film A View to a Kill.

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Hawksworth Trading Estate, Swindon, 2019.

While the town centre is busy with shoppers during the day, there is a stillness and quiet around some of the nearby trading estates and business parks, where people go about their daily working lives inside the many factories and offices.

A final interesting fact about Swindon: over the years the town has had links with many world-famous brands and industries including Intel, Motorola, BMW, Rover, Honda, and the Spitfire aircraft.

 

Information sources:

Born Again Swindonian (https://swindonian.me/).
Information Britain (http://www.information-britain.co.uk/).
Swindon Advertiser (https://www.swindonadvertiser.co.uk/).