Back in October 2014 (now three years ago) I was on the first term of a Creative Writing M.A. at NTU.
I was also with uncanny timing commissioned (the first and so far the only time I been commissioned) by R.I.B.A. through Apple and Snakes to write in response to a lovely collection of Edwin Smith Photographs at R.I.B.A. that autumn.
I missed my course deadline but fulfilled the commission and promptly left a course that frankly I should not have been on at that time. The £500 fee almost covered my first term fees!
The RIBA website has ‘mislaid’ the entire project basically so I publishing whole thing here instead.
Here is the work which is one of the best things I done so far and as I not as flavour of the month as certain other poets hasn’t been seen since unless you delve deep into my obscure back catalogue.
Apple and Snakes put up a blog post of the recordings we all made as well..again not heard much of that from RIBA either they probably ticking various ‘engagement’ boxes.
I am indebted to Roy Hammans who actually developed the last image after Smith’s death who provided informative advice throughout and is probably the single most knowledgeable person about Smith and his work.
EDWIN SMITH – Catching Light
“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Someday, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”― Christopher Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin, Berlin Stories, (1945)
Kodak Box Brownie No.2 Model F. 127 Roll Film 1927
Camden Town Bedroom 1935
Trembling in a gloomy Camden Town bedroom surrounded by brown paper
The teenage boy gently prises the camera from the leather case, undoes the catch
Traces the word BROWNIE[i] along the fake leather strap, caresses the box
The textured cardboard leatherette warm to the touch, he raises it to his eyes
Spins around to catch a glimpse of lace curtains breathing in and out
Then a pause, stops breathing, squints through spectacle glass and a blurry lens
No film, just retina, lens and glass glinting, quiet suburban air between the wars
Shutter pressed, the first image, undeveloped, untaken, unrecorded.
ICA IDEAL 205 Glass Plate 9×12 1935
Opticians London 1935
A present from Marx and Nash[ii], same fake black leather case but much stronger
A hint of steel, hands now more relaxed, a world at his fingertips
The box finally clicks open, bellows a tiny lung, rangefinder, spirit level
Suddenly in Vogue, a London Atget spinning around fairs, cafes, Oxford Street
Zeiss Ikon Tessar 135mm f4.5 precision German lens and Compur shutter
The shop windows buzz with reflections, his spectacles stare back after
Nights spent in Lund Humphries[iii] experimenting with solutions, final prints
Days mixing it with emigrants and socialites, Focal Press tricks, ghost images.[iv]
CONTAX II 5cm Sonnar Lens 35mm 1936
Kentish Town 1936
N.B. The curators got this wrong is in fact in East End probably Limehouse or Whitechapel as the Poster behind the gent is for a show at Hackney Wick and architecturally Kentish Town simply doesn’t match this setting.
Modernism in Kentish Town, a lens named after the sun, Sonnar
The lure of speed, futurism, the 35mm film spooling out of the movies
Twisting on that light yellow filter, ½ a second at F4, the march of progress
Back to black-outs, air-raid fears, black shirts, Agfa Isochrom, Kodak Nikko
The thrill of a world intoxicated with power[v], dancing on a ledge, never falling
Café de Paris, Heppenstall, Orwell, men talking in gangs carrying knives
His finger presses the shutter on Laura Knight and Coco, the ballet, the fairs
Spin Pennies from Heaven, Zeppelins over the docks[vi], Germany calling.
THORNTON-PICKARD RUBY Quarter Plate 1904
St Lawrence, Bradford –on-Avon, Wiltshire 1950
Post-War, Deep England after Evans[vii], ash in the mouth, misericord darkness,
Light trickle slowly through lens, cat-one, cat-two, cat-three, whispered
People have become ghosts, 27 and a half minutes[viii], divining, digging into time
A mahogany box worn to a gleam in a suitcase, mahogany tripod, Leeds, England
So solid, a step back from the sirens, modernist black and white, the emblems
Slow drizzle and fade, tilts into spires and thickets, empty barns, rigs of the time
His glinting spectacles at the viewfinder, crouching like a sniper, waiting
Hiding his camera under vestry tables, a quiet man in a corner, hooded.
GRAFLEX SPEED GRAPHIC Roll Film 1960
Fylindales, Yorkshire 1969
Movement, travel, portables, Made in New York, focal plane, press camera
The fruits of success, lease-lend to never had it so good, the wide angle
The New Europe, Ireland, Italy, Greece and France, the Ensign Autorange
Searching for the same mellow light, that photograph in the mind always
Then back weeks later to the darkroom in deepest England, the bleaching
Hours lightening shadows, clearing highlights with Potassium Ferricyanide,[ix] poison
Chemical arts, sleights of hand, shade in the palm of the hand, fission and fusion
His collecting eye adding the coin to the wishing well, staring at the sun.[x]
ENSIGN AUTORANGE 820 120 roll film 1955
Stubble Burning – Last film developed 1993 by Roy Hammans
‘Co-operating with the Inevitable’ he called it, “bend with the stream”
Holding the Ensign Autorange up to the light it reflects in his spectacles
Bought in 1955 the last camera he held, English made, Walthamstow
The firm almost disappeared when in 1940 the offices in Holborn bombed
All surviving he stands with Olive to watch stubble burning in 1971
Squinting through a crisp and sharp Ross Xpres lens at the flaring
Feeling the silver body in the palm, the faux leather Ensign logo
Epsilon shutter pressed, a last image, taken, undeveloped, catches light forever.[xi]
[i] Edwin Smith redeemed the Kodak Box Brownie by collecting Corn-Flake packet coupons probably in 1927 (EWELL, 2008)p.11.
[ii] Friend Enid Marx gave Edwin Smith a ‘better camera’ in 1935 shortly after he got married Olive Smith reports this as the Contax but as Ewell points out that not released until 1936. (EWELL, 2008)p.13.
[iii] Enid Marx was connected to The Royal College and Smith’s photographs came to the attention of Paul Nash who encouraged Smith and gave him access to the darkrooms at the publisher Lund Humphries. (EWELL, 2008)
[iv] Smith co-wrote and published a series of Focal Press guides from 1938-1940.(SMITH, 1940)
[v] Ewell reports the trip Smith made with his sponsor Sir Albert Talbot Wilson MP, a fervent pro-Nazi, to Germany at this time. (EWELL, 2008)p.19.
[vi] The German airship Graf Zeppelin made ‘spying’ raids probably equipped with aerial photography equipment of a high resolution on the 30th June 1936 and this was reported in Hansard on the 8th July 1936. The Parliamentary exchange highlights the naivety of some in Government which bordered on complicity. (Hansard, 1936)
[vii] Frederick H. Evans, British ‘Pictorialist’ photographer famous for the ‘Sea of Steps’ photograph taken in Wells Cathedral which Smith took a version of in 1956. A major influence on the Cathedral and Parish Church series.
[viii] Smith would time exposures using the cat phrase and replace the lens cap on exposures that could last up to 27 minutes thus removing all trace of human activity. (EWELL, 2008)p.52.
[ix] Smith mixed his own chemicals. After his death a large amount of Potassium Ferricyanide was found in his possession. The chemical is a poison and the Ilford Manual of Photography recommends disposing in drains with plenty of water to reduce the risk. Source: Roy Hammans note to article ‘Ways of Working’ on The Weeping Ash photography website. Accessed 31.10.2014. (HAMMANS, 2011)
[x] The Edwin Smith RIBA exhibition highlights the ‘trick’ Smith used during the Fylindales printing of placing a coin on the paper to ‘create’an image of the sun where none had been.
[xi] The circumstances of this last roll of film being left in Smith’s camera and only being developed years later are detailed on the Weeping Ash website. Source: ‘The Last Exposures’. Accessed 31.10.2014. (HAMMANS, 2011)
EWELL, R., 2008. Evocations of Place. 1st ed. London: Merrell:RIBA.
HAMMANS, R., 2011. Edwin Smith Working Methods. [Online]
Available at: http://www.fine-photographs.co.uk/index.php/life-work/ways-of-working
[Accessed 31 10 2014].
HAMMANS, R., 2011. The Last Exposures. [Online]
Available at: http://www.fine-photographs.co.uk/index.php/related-material/the-last-exposures
[Accessed 31 10 2014].
Hansard, 1936. GERMAN AIRSHIP “HINDENBURG.”. [Online]
Available at: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1936/jul/08/german-airship-hindenburg
[Accessed 31 10 2014].
SMITH, E., 1940. In: All the Photo-Tricks. London: Focal Press.
I have just finished this book by Will Hodgkinson. A companion to his first tome ‘Guitar Man’ it pretty much what it says on the label. A series of encounters with various songwriters underpinning his first and possibly last recorded work being recorded at Liam Watson’s Toe Rag studios and then released as a 7″ single.
A charming book. As my drunken Rockabilly band also recorded at Liam’s Toe Rag as did a unheard of garage band called The White Stripes everything described rings true. I found the encounters with Andy Partridge, Chip Taylor and Richard Hawley the most engrossing and could possibly have done with more from their interviews.
Overall a worthwhile read if interested in songwriters and the un-pleasantries of trying to form and keep together a band. The final encounter with Shirley Collins and a brief reprise of Bert Jansch leads directly nicely onto his next book ‘ The Ballad of Britain’ which next on my reading list.
Most interestingly the musicians comments were quite pertinent to my writers block with poetry/prose. I found Hawley most entertaining with his comments where he quotes Hendrix..’learn everything, forget everything, play’...and how other people’s music ‘knocked him off his radar‘…..
I had the idea of reading at least one short story a day. It sort of working and I have managed three so far this week. The first on Tuesday was Ron Hansen’s ‘Funland’ from ‘Nebraska’ a collection of short stories published in 1989. I purchased it at the time because of the cover which I later found out was a photograph by Wim Wenders. No apparent connection between the two artists just a lucky graphic design intervention I guess although film does connect to this story.
The collection contains a series of historical re-inventions or ‘factions’ that whilst starting from historical certainties and research lift off into unknown territories. The collection was published after several more ‘historically’ accurate novels including the ‘Assassination of Jesse James by the coward Robert Ford’ now a movie with Brad Pitt. Hansen went on to write several novels on historical themes. He is now the Gerard Manley Hopkins S.J. Professor at Santa Clara University – San Francisco. Teaching fiction and screen-writing.
‘Playland’ is a classic case in point. When first read in 1990 with no internet there was no chance of quickly and easily searching out images (see above) from the ‘real’ Playland or reading anything about its existence. Now I can,and whilst not spoiling the story (which I read first), it does provide an intriguing backdrop and filter on the writer’s intentions. The theme park started life as a dog track run by gangsters after the second world war and this adds a sheen to the tale which revolves around an ‘innocent’ post-war couple. The story is seemingly set post or during WW2 as the cast mention various ‘Talkie’ stars like Peter Lorre and Betty Grable .
The introductory pages however create a ‘paradisical’ indeed a veritable Eden from the Depression created some time after 1918. This rather strange as the story suggests it long established as the story unfolds in a vaguely 1920s to 1950s neverworld, perhaps deliberately. The real Playland was a more humdrum affair built in the 1940s and probably a place Hansen visited as a child.
The exotic and unreal nature of the tale is heightened by the landing of a seaplane (just after a pelican!) carrying the ‘evil’ and rich protagonist. It is like something straight out of The Great Gatsby. He is the female ‘lead’s’ cousin (I say lead because the whole story so ‘filmic’) who is a sexual predator and the essential ingredient in the plot’s progression and the final denouement. The atmosphere suggests Hansen playing with the dreams rather than the reality of Nebraskan lives.The imagery and lighting throughout is so dreamlike the whole story could be read as existing on a film set.
The structure is straightforward. The ending slightly open-ended and bristling with perverse sexuality. A very good short story not quite as draw-dropping as the tour-de-force ‘Wickedness’ that opens the collection and was featured in Tobias Wolf’s Picador anthology of Contemporary American Stories in 1993 but still very good.
This short is a good read and suggests that ‘reality’ can be manipulated and used as suits even if twenty years later your reader can pick apart the reality from the imagined which affects all ‘faction’. Indeed where do we draw the line on historical authenticity and fiction these days when even historians questioning such notions? Is the image above any more real because sourced from the internet. it looks real but even that could have been created by an ingenious graphic designer..maybe that is the entrance to another theme park..or hell.
A review at the time is interesting noting the precision of the writing at its best and its sloppiness at worst…but marks Playland as one of the ‘bests’
What makes the violence in these stories so powerful and disturbing is Mr. Hansen's meticulous control of his prose. The action of his tales is always carefully grounded in a welter of precise description (hens sitting on their nests ''like a dress shop's hats''; ''goldfish with tails like orange scarves''; a man who ''chews gum instead of brushing his teeth''), and the language constantly engages us by moving back and forth between the colloquial and the poetic, between the understated and the brutal.
Firstly it not a collection of short stories DOH….
Well my weekly book challenge failed miserably but I did read one book in the week which a first for me in a long while :-). The chosen book was John Berendt’s ‘Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil’ a strange choice randomly picked up because I liked the cover in a charity shop!.
It is a rattling good read but the whole ‘factional’ element what most interesting. Like Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’ Berendt (ex New Yorker editor so no slouch) mixes up fiction and reality and not only did this annoy people at the time as it was presented as ‘non-fiction’ for a Pulitzer prize but it also means that several different ‘modes’ in operation throughout the ‘novel’ or ‘New Journalism’ depending on how you look at it.
Written during mid 1990’s but it has the flavour of the Aids infected late eighties and a lot of the material plays with false and real borders politically and emotionally. It never stated but Berendt himself seems more than interested in the social and political status of both gay men ( the protagonist) and the political ‘solutions’ that white southerners were making with post Civil Rights America. Indeed the analysis of gerrymandering and political corruption does seem to ring true. In that sense it does the job of ‘reportage’ pretty well and reads as a historically accurate tale of its time….maybe.
However the problem is that having been at the New Yorker he also more than aware of the power of good story-telling and he administers many ‘florid’ and deft touches to his canvas……adding ‘Southern Gothic’ texture like Spanish Moss on the trees to his words…
It all dipped in a large amount of treacly descriptive writing….which helped sell the 2.7 million copies no doubt but skewed the threadbare ‘veracity’ of the story he also adds a bit of Dickensian travelogue for good measure…which apparently increased tourism to Savannah. So it is an archly constructed ‘bestseller’ at heart written by someone clever enough to get away with the floridity and containing enough factual detail ( which easily checked online now) to give some creedence to his stories. Where it falls down is the sometimes over embellished characterisation. The Drag Queen ‘Chablis’ exists and is doing well but the dialogue she speaks here reads like an Eddie Murphy comedy skit most of the time…I kept thinking of Trading Places instead of the action. I do not doubt the locations existed but the set pieces are fictional like the parade of dresses out of the nightclub. They just don’t ring true and the ‘straight’ white boyfriend and family again has a ring of point-making about ‘diversity’ than actual truth…at these points the factional problem starts as you lose the suspension of disbelief and start checking facts. If it had been published today it would immediately have been torn apart online….Berendt was lucky he published just before the internet hit home.His next and only so far other book is a ‘straighter’ historical book about an opera house in Venice.
Made into a mediocre film by Clint Eastwood the political point-scoring sometimes wears thin….Nazi flags..really?..more Father Ted than truth again? Who knows obviously there some crazy snakes in Savannah…but were they really as poisonous as this? Whenever something here seems to good to be true it probably is fictional.
It is well worth reading as a snapshot of southern USA life but remember it seen through pink..sorry purple tinted glasses and the Voodoo stuff…..pure Scooby Doo…..now Mr Berendt what did you really get up to whilst living there and why did Oscar Wilde travel all that way…..more questions than answers.
As for faction…hmm jury out…..I shall return to the theme no doubt. Is all journalism a kind of fiction anyway?