A few more from my nocturnal wanders during the first week of January 2023. All digital but as I prepare to start week 2 of the series thoughts are turning to some nocturnal film photography to complement these. I am planning to use the film camera alongside the digital.
As night-time photography will of necessity mean pushing the film you can expect some blog posts on the subject. I’m thinking that a roll of Ilford HP5+ rated at ISO 3200 and developed in Microphen will be a good starting point but watch this space!
Stoat: Scottish slang, meaning to wander around aimlessly. For example: “I was just stoating aboot the toon”.
I am indebted to John Farnan for introducing me to the term “stoat” which I immediately associated with my own photographic perambulations which I’ve often termed psychogeographic. For the first seven days of 2023 I’ve been “stoating” about my neighbourhood making nocturnal images for my 365 project. I’ve gathered a few together here to open my blog account for 2023.
Does intent influence photography? By which I mean that if I’m just out for a walk and happen to take a camera with me will my images be any different to those I’d have taken if I’d gone out intending to complete a dérive or make images for my portfolio? Or if I’m out and engaged in routine domestic activity will that change how I see the world through my camera? For that matter, does what photographic device I am carrying (phone, digital or film camera, pinhole etc) make any difference?
I’ve probably not explained that very well so let’s take this morning. It’s a weekday and on most weekdays I leave the house around 8.20am to walk one of my grandsons to school. There are basically two routes and he always chooses; it makes no odds to me as both take the same time.
Today it’s the front door route. Out of the house, turn right and walk to the end of the terrace and through the enclosed path behind the pub. Down a slight incline, turn right and walk in a straight line until the school gates are reached. A simple walk, it takes under ten minutes, twenty if you include the return.
On days like today I leave the house intending to return straight home after seeing Harry safely into the care of his teachers. I always have my phone and sometimes a camera as I often make an image during the walk back. I’ve been working on a picture-a-day project since October 2017 and these “insurance” images take the pressure off me if the day evolves in an unexpected way. So, whilst I have a camera the purpose of the walk is practical and mundane and definitely not something I’d class as a dérive. Or “serious” photography.
At this time of the year the sun is still working it’s way up above the terraced houses yet it still sneaks it’s way through the gaps, bouncing off windows and creating wonderful patterns and shapes. I can’t resist. Never.
This morning I made four images during the journey. Each uses the shadows created by the rising sun as it filters through gaps in the houses. None are what I’d call pictorial; I doubt if anyone thinks they are pretty and they are certainly not traditional picture postcard material. I’m probably the only person who will like them, especially once I’ve removed the colour.
They aren’t really documentary images either except in the sense that they are documenting something I saw. Rather they represent the way I responded to the urban landscape. These are the vignettes, small slices of the landscape, that caught my eye this morning on a walk I’ve probably made hundreds of times now.
As I’ve been writing and thinking this morning I’ve realised that, to answer my own question, whatever my reason for being out I still photograph with the same intent. What differs is the amount of time I can devote to the act of photographing the world around me. However, this is something that has evolved over time so in a way is a learnt behaviour. I do remember a time when I termed an outing as either a “serious” photographic expedition or a “snapshot” day. The former would inevitably be me alone with “proper” kit including a choice of lenses, two or three cameras and a bag containing filters etcetera. The latter? Any time when I was with a member of the family or when the trip was for a specific purpose other than photography.
So what changed? Well, I did I guess. I believe that subconsciously I must have gradually realised that any outing could form the basis for “serious” photography. Slowly the things that caught my eye when out with a camera started to merge into a more coherent form. Still an eclectic mixture but the “serious” and the snapshot have gradually merged and I just take photographs these days. Perhaps “serious” photography should be renamed as “my” photography?
Thinking about it, I have always made photographs that appealed to me. Yes, I went through a brief period of entering competitions and did so successfully. But I very quickly realised that in many ways I wasn’t being successful as a photographer but as someone who could identify an image that a camera club judge would deem worthy. I enjoyed the accolades at the time but it was a brief dopamine hit if truth be told especially as I realised that in a lot of cases I no longer liked my own photographs any more! I soon reverted to making work for myself. If anything I took a conscious step away from the typical camera club aesthetic and returned to film photography, embracing pinhole for the first time and in doing so found a photographic genre that really resonates with my view of the world.
I have habitually carried a camera at all times for the last fifteen or more years. Every time I leave the house I am full of intent. My intent is to capture images that resonate with my view of the world. Whether that’s through a day dedicated to the craft or something I fit around other activities is irrelevant to me. Be it a couple of quick images on my phone or several rolls of film. But it hasn’t always been like that and I’m sure the same is true for many people.
Turning briefly to the last question in my opening paragraph. What difference does the type of camera make? The only difference it makes these days for me is from a practical perspective. I routinely carry a wooden medium format pinhole camera in my bag and with exposures lasting into the minutes I am constrained in where I can place the camera in an urban environment by the need to stay out of peoples way. My panoramic swing-lens camera has a clockwork motor and is not a discrete tool; I was using it recently at an indoor exhibition (photography was allowed) and in the cavernous mill loft I was sure that people at the far end of the room could hear every exposure as it was made.
In truth I can only answer the question I originally posed through the lens of my own experience. For me the answer would be that it used to make a difference but not any more. I make images that appeal to me, that reflect how I interact with the world and how I interpret it. Increasingly, the images that I share are the most personal rather than sugar-coated picture postcards (think stunning sunsets or sunrises) and in many cases are the complete antithesis of the work currently in favour amongst many photography enthusiasts.
Finally, I spoke with someone yesterday that I’d not spoken to since before the pandemic. She and I had both been on the same college course a few years back and had stayed in touch. Writing on the college forum later she said: “Love the images you shared, very evocative and they are very much your style.” That made my day.
As for style that’s a topic for another day but perhaps the evolution of intent has been hand-in-glove with the evolution of my style?
Six-thirty am Sunday 25th September. It was a late night last night but despite this I was awake in a Reading hotel room, feeling tired yet ready to start a new day. As it was likely that I’d be the only person up and about for a while I dressed and left the hotel for a wander. No plan as such although I wasn’t going to stray too far from our hotel not least in case the wife woke and wanted an early breakfast!
I wandered out of the front door and took my first lung full of the chilly Sunday morning air. Left, right or straight on? Left was previously unexplored but would take me away from the centre towards mainly residential streets. Straight on had already been “done” over the previous two days so I crossed the road and turned right along the dual carriageway.
The moment I cross the road I am aware that the sun is just peeping above the buildings behind me to my right. It is dark under the flyover although the sun filters in through gaps in the infrastructure creating slashes of light against the industrial detritus to my left. These are the backs of the flashy restaurants that line the River Kennet hereabouts and are a place of shadows, dark recesses, industrial-sized fans and concrete. In the morning light though they are irresistible. Well, irresistible to an urban photographer at least.
These too are for me the Edges. The places where man’s interactions with the land are most obvious. Here the glittering glass and chrome of the restaurants that border the land is replaced by concrete, tarmac and steel and the colour palette moves towards dull black and battleship greys. These are places where most folk hurry past unless they have business there. There is nothing for them here. Suddenly, a flash of light catches my eye as an anonymous grey door opens and someone, presumably a cleaner, momentarily appears in the light before it is extinguished as abruptly as it appeared.
Moving slowly on up the dual carriageway I turn left and find myself at another intersection. This is where the periphery of the City centre shops and the flashy newer Oracle Centre almost touch hands. Its another edge seemingly. The Grosvenor Casino on the corner, dated yet neon-bright, stands sentinel. To its right the old bridge over the River Kennet. From here it is heading steadily to its appointment with the mighty River Thames above Sonning Lock here in the heart of Reading.
Here the rising sun is poking a wary finger through, lighting up the pedestrian crossing. Sun flare and haze greets the eye before the tree branches part slightly and the rising sun briefly assaults the eyes. I check my watch. It’s the first major decision. Do I cross the old bridge and wander down into the city centre shops? It would make for a longer walk hence checking my watch. On balance I decided to turn left and wander down into the newer Oracle Centre that straddles the River Kennet at this point.
It’s Sunday morning, nowhere is open and it is a lot quieter than it had been last night as we had gone in search of some supper. Here too the sun is filtering through gaps in the buildings creating patches of light. It is also reflecting back from the chrome and glass to create similar splashes of light on the opposite side of the river.
As I stroll through the riverside cafes my footsteps slow. I suddenly realise that my decision to turn left was made not by my checking of the watch but by a subconscious desire for a hit of caffeine. I realise that I am actually looking for a coffee shop that might be open at 8am on a Sunday. Starbucks, Costa and Caffè Nero are all resolutely shut as are the independents in the main concourse. Nothing is open it seems and it’s looking as if I will have to wait until I get back to the hotel. Then as I walk past the automatic doors of a seemingly dark and closed McDonalds they slide invitingly open and my sub-conscious quest for coffee is over.
I’m definitely sub-optimal this morning. The beer, red wine, casino and a late-night chicken supper weigh heavily on this sexagenarian so the coffee is welcome. I pay my 99p, take the proffered paper cup and retreat to a window seat. My first instinct is to have a look at the images I’d just made but instead I opt for pen and paper and jot down the notes from which I am now writing twenty four hours later; images still unseen.
Sat there with a weak sun starting to warm the autumnal air, behind a large plate glass window, sipping hot coffee and putting down my thoughts on paper is a great way to start a day. I’ve a six-hour drive ahead of me later but for now all is good with the world.
As I’m sat there my eyes wander again to the patches of light on the opposite bank. I’ve crossed the river so what I am seeing isn’t direct sunlight but the reflections from this monument to retail commerce and consumption. I’m inexorably drawn to these patches of light. These too represent the margins, the Edges as I dubbed them in paragraph four. The places at which man’s interaction with the landscape is most visibly displayed. Not in terms of big landscapes though, but more intimate scenes where the man-made meets the natural. Where, in this case, the river has been channelled and tamed by man to enable him to create the centre that I have been happily wandering through this morning.
It may not be on a grand scale but these little vignettes, for me at least, are where man’s impact on the natural world is most apparent. In these intimate, seemingly insignificant interactions I can see most clearly man’s hand at work.
Friday – a blue, cloudless sky and 34° in the shade. We are down south visiting family and after a long drive the previous afternoon I felt I needed to stretch my legs. So, donning my battered hat and shouldering the old, equally battered canvas bag with my cameras and light meter I left mother-in-laws house turned right and then right again. I’d been in shade outside the house but that second right turn put me right underneath the midday sun, basking in the full force of its glare and heat, with no gentle breeze to offer relief.
Such were my thoughts and I wasn’t yet more than thirty feet from the house. I paused though as the dilapidated window frame of the end house caught my eye. Three windows in a row, surrounded by bricks would make a good panoramic image I thought. Out came the most panoramic of my cameras, the KMZ FT-2, loaded with Fomapan 100. A quick light reading showed I needed a shutter speed of around 1/600th of a second. But this is the FT-2 so I’d need to make do with 1/400th. Dratted sun, I don’t get these “problems” normally in the UK.
I would also find out that a piece of the felt inside the camera had come loose to adorn every frame and also that the problems I’d had loading the film would have resulted in scratches on the fragile film. But them’s the breaks.
Moving on, a matter of a hundred yards brought me into the shade of some trees and the first decision. Left? Or right? I welcomed the chance to pause in the shade. I’d only been out a few minutes and I was already thinking how nice it would be sat in the armchair I’d left minutes before. But I had three cameras, all with films that needed to be finished, and so I turned left.
The trees lined this side of the road which formed the boundary between the housing estate and the retail park and I welcomed their shade. Pausing every so often to check for compositions, I knew I was merely prolonging the moment at which I would again turn out into the sun’s full glare. I was staying in the residential area and apart from the odd tree there would probably be no more shade until I got back to the house.
My shoulder bag is distinctly non-photographer in appearance. It’s two inner pockets hold the chosen cameras very well but as soon as you lift it up the shape of the bag changes as the centre sags due to the weight. Not the easiest to use then with more than one camera but worth it for its discrete looks. Not that the chosen cameras were overly discrete. A plastic AgfaPhoto point and shoot in bright orange, the clunky clockwork beast that is the Horizon S3 Pro and, as we’ve already seen, the hunk of metal that is the KMZ FT-2. My elderly Weston Master V light meter completed the kit.
At the end of the road I turned left again, taking me back into the heart of the estate. I soon came across some roadworks which drew my attention. It also provided me with some amusement as cars slowed down when they saw a strange metal box pointing in their direction!
The bright, harsh sunlight, with no clouds to diffuse it, was making life difficult especially amongst the uninspiring architecture of this 1980s housing estate. Boxy, homogeneous houses stand in long uniform rows, punctuated by occasional in-built properties with weird shaped gardens in what would have been welcome gaps. I was still walking away from my start point but decided it was time to resume the left turns and start to circle back towards the armchair which was by now calling to me.
Walking down a street which I’ve regularly traversed in the car I spotted a gap in the progression of houses and in my usual fashion found my feet heading towards it. It turned out to be a footpath running along the Lydiard Brook. The brook runs into the River Ray further north and from there into the mighty Thames. It’s not contributing too much at the moment though being a mere trickle. Following this I soon came to a bridge which I crossed, eager to reach the unexpected shade of the hitherto hidden park on the other side.
It was a double-win too. A few hundred yards of cooling shade and it would also take me back towards my mother-in-law’s house.
I returned, a damp sweaty mess, and sank gratefully into the armchair and took the proffered cold beverage (non-alcoholic, I’m the driver) and reflected on a hot, at times frustrating, yet ultimately another thoroughly enjoyable walk.
Footnote: I had a very plasticky AgfaPhoto point and shoot camera in my bag, loaded with Fomapan 400. The KMZ FT-2 had Fomapan 100 loaded and despite these two films needing different developing times I developed both in one tank with Fomapan Excel. The Horizon S3 Pro had my second (and last) roll of 1989-expired Orwo NP27. I rated it at ISO 50 but with hindsight 64 or even 100 might have been better.
After a day stuck indoors yesterday I decided I needed a wander before breakfast this morning. The wife was still asleep and as I had three cameras with part-exposed films in this was an ideal opportunity to kill two birds with the proverbial stone.
I surprised myself by heading for the front door. Taking the two or three strides from door to gate I hesitated. Left or right? I wasn’t used to exiting via the front of the house and momentarily I was confused. Turning right I noticed the light on West Vale, nestled down in the valley, I clearly had my photographer’s hat on this morning as I headed toward the top of the hill and a view down into the valley.
I stopped to admire the view; it never fails to delight me. With the sun bright in a cloud bedecked sky I watched the patches of light and shade ripple across the landscape before reaching for the first camera.
Having captured images with all three cameras I hesitated again. Down the hill and then a long loop home with much of it uphill? Retrace my steps slightly and wander down Gog Hill which would also necessitate an uphill return. Or walk south, past my own front gate, and into the maze of streets that I wander so often? In the end my stomach decided. Part way down Gog Hill, then cut up behind the sheltered housing and down into the high street and my favourite café.
Gog Hill is the oldest extant street in Elland. Much changed, it had houses along part of its length at one point, it drops steeply down from the top of Elland to the River Calder and the Calder & Hebble Navigation. It is cobbled, poorly maintained and dry or wet it’s slippery but nevertheless I have walked up and down this overgrown lane countless times. For most of its length it is overhung by trees with walls on the opposite side and in the Summer the canopy of leaves keeps the lane shaded for most of the day.
Part way down I turned off the cobbles and turned right up some muddy steps. This part is nearly always dank and dark, little sunlight penetrates in the Summer and being Yorkshire it rains for much of the Autumn and Winter. It’s particularly overgrown at present and I had to duck and walk bent over before popping out onto the street behind the flats. Following the service road I passed the garages and came to the end of the road.
Turning left the familiar bulk of the rear of the Savile Arms pub was partly silhouetted by the sun rising behind it. The sun itself was partly screened by clouds and I thought the resulting contrasts would suit the long-expired ORWO NP27. I took a light reading, dialled it into the KMZ FT-2, making an allowance for the limited shutter speeds available. It was then that the sun, which had been playing silly-beggars from the moment I’d left the house, started a game of hide and seek with the clouds.
By now I was conscious that I hadn’t broken my fast and with just a few frames left in my cameras I made the best of the opportunity before heading to the café which was now less than a hundred metres around two corners. A final couple of frames on the first corner saw all three cameras empty and with no further reason to dawdle I gladly sought out a medium breakfast and mug of Yorkshire tea.
By the way if you’re wondering what the two Polaroid images are all about you’ll need to watch for the forthcoming #InstantRegret post once it’s written! Or just find me on Twitter – @elland_in
Saturday dawned grey and overcast; certainly not a day for rushing out with a camera to capture the light. It was bright yet in the same glance also dull and somewhat … well grey. I made coffee, found a magazine and settled in my favourite chair for a leisurely morning.
An hour later I looked again through the window upon the familiar grey, urban landscape. This time though I reached for shoes, a roll of AgfaPhoto APX 400 (the first film that came to hand) and my Nikon SLR with its ever-present YG filter. What compelled me to sally forth in the exact same conditions I’d forsworn earlier I do not know. Perhaps the coffee had done it’s restorative work.
As is my norm I left with no clear purpose and this morning I turned right as I left my back garden and found myself wandering south through the back streets; familiar but much less trodden of late. Reaching South Lane instead of turning left to start the loop to meander back towards home as I would normally do, I crossed and carried on south up an unadopted lane, lined with trees and bushes on one side and the untidy rear ends of long gardens on the other. Again, not unfamiliar, but I doubt I’ve walked along this particular lane since this time last year.
At the end of this lane I generally veer left but today my feet drifted right, along a faint yet still discernible track that eventually deposited me at the far end of the industrial estate that forms the southern boundary of our small town. I’d never been this far into the estate before so this was, to me, virgin, unexplored land.
A steady stride was now called for though as I did need to get back home to complete some domestic chores and so I picked up the pace but I was nevertheless still alert for I’d realised that despite the random wandering I was actually looking for something. I paused briefly and looked around me, a full 360° turn. I had had no inkling until then but walking on down the street, noting the contrasts between the industrial buildings and the trees, I suddenly realised that I had all the time been subconsciously looking for images for my infrared project. A camera that I’d deliberately left at home as I’d removed it from my shoulder bag to pop the Nikon in an hour earlier.
All week, as part of my ongoing “365 Project”, I have been making infrared images with a converted digital camera. I had been thinking yesterday about looking for a tree vs industrial building image to add variety to the more pictorial images I’d made so far this week but had no clear thought as to where to find it.
A thought occurred to me this morning as I reread my recent Starting Point post. If I make a deliberate decision on the camera and/or film prior to going for a wander does that in some way invalidate the psychogeographical credentials of that walk? Even if the ultimate route is still down to chance and the whims of my peripatetic mind does a conscious decision regarding the photography dilute the essential randomness? It is perhaps important to remember that the photography is probably incidental to the dêrive; psychogeography (as I understand matters) is not a photographic discipline or genre but a way of exploring and experiencing the landscape.
If I choose for example to pick up the digital infrared camera (as I did today) will that in some way, consciously or otherwise, influence my wandering? To my mind, this camera works best in the urban environment when you can contrast the bricks, concrete and glass with trees, foliage and grass. As I walk a lot around my home town I do know where I am at all times as I mentioned in my last post. Reaching a junction and knowing where each option leads will my subconscious choose the route that will be better for the chosen camera or film? Or will it over-compensate and subconsciously choose the “worst” option?
Does it even matter though? Given that photography is presumably incidental to the the manner of the wandering is the act and mode of recording the dêrive irrelevant?
My gut instinct is that it is irrelevant how, or indeed if, a wanderer chooses to record their wandering. It is the manner of the walk that is important not whether or not one chose to record the event nor indeed the way in which one chose to record it.
It is a question I will revisit later in the year for certain!
I’ve just signed up for an OCA course following a recommendation from Ian Hill (@PrintedLand), that starts in October, entitled Investigating Place with Psychogeography, a subject I’ve briefly touched upon in the past. There’s no pre-course reading recommended and indeed the acknowledgment email I received earlier in the week will I believe be the only contact between now and the course starting.
Having some pre-knowledge is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing in that I already know I’m going to enjoy the subject so I am looking forward to it with keen anticipation. A curse is perhaps over-egging things, poetic license if you will, but I don’t want any pre-conceived ideas to get in the way during the ten-week course.
I guess that the biggest of these pre-conceived notions is that I already consider myself a psychogeographer. A flâneur if you will. We touched upon psychogeography in my OCA Diploma in Photography a few years back. This was my first introduction to the subject and really caught my imagination as it seemed to describe the way in which my own approach to photography was evolving. Fast forward to the pandemic which hit us in early 2020 and apart from periods shielding at home my photography moved even closer to the concept of the flâneur, or at least as I currently understand the term.
It will be very interesting to see if the course helps me confirm or dismiss this belief.
Take this morning. The day after the hottest day on record in the UK and I venture out to post a parcel. I could jump in the car, drive down and be back indoors within ten minutes. Instead I load a roll of film into the nearest camera, the Horizon S3 Pro today, and plonking a wide-brimmed hat on my bald head, I set out to complete my errand. This is a walk I complete regularly but I doubt if I ever use exactly the same route twice. There are a myriad of back streets and alleyways through which I can meander or drift towards my destination. There’s also the main road too but this rarely gets used as I like to wind my way through the snickets and cobbles. I’ve been known to wander in a large arc, finally approaching the Post Office from the opposite direction on many occasions. I’m not going to get lost but I never have a preconceived plan either for the route or what I might photograph.
From my back door the choices start immediately. Left or right? To the end of the road or through one of the snickets and into the back road behind the housing association flats? I turn right but almost immediately nip down the narrow snicket between two terraces of Victorian houses built for mill workers. Emerging into the road behind these houses I turn right and immediately my eye is drawn to the dustbins surrounded by rubbish dotted along the road. The bin-men won’t be this way for a week and they last visited a week ago so these are an anomaly and without consciously being aware of it I’m taking a light reading. f16 at 1/60th second should do it. I probably won’t take another reading unless the light is dramatically different, relying on my experience to adjust exposure from this base setting.
A busy junction is reached. Normally crammed with cars dumped higgledy piggledy the entire junction is devoid of cars. A clear view in either direction and the architecture fully visible for a change. I can’t remember seeing it this way before. The camera raises itself to my eye it seems and two exposures are made before I cross, choosing the right hand fork as I slowly make my way onwards.
I continue in this fashion drifting first left then right but always being drawn inexorably towards the focus of my errand, the Post Office. Pleasantries dispensed and parcel despatched I cross the road and enter my favourite cafe for breakfast and a cup of strong Yorkshire tea – black, no sugar please. The cafe is dim inside, especially compared to the bright street, and the light through the windows draws my eye. f8 at 1/30th my brain decides and without me really being aware I find the camera in my hand and another snapshot of my morning’s meanderings has found it’s way onto the cellulose.
I should add at this point that I’m not a film-snob; it just happens to be my preferred photographic medium. I’ve completed many walks such as this with a digital camera too. Which brings me to something that I’ve been thinking about over the last few days. Nine in forty five, or 9:45 as a shorthand. Rather than describe this concept here I will LINK to something I’ve already written on the subject. Are my occasional 9:45 walks an example of one approach to psychogeography perhaps?
Draining the last drop from my mug I prepare to wander in the general direction of my house. There’s a direct route that will have me home in under ten minutes but I very much doubt I will take it today. I’ve decided over breakfast that I will finish this roll on the way back and get it developed on my return home. I shall turn right, I usually do, but after that who knows. I may end up by the river or canal, a very large detour, or perhaps the semi-enclosed cobbles of Gog Hill, the oldest extant street in Elland and a very steep climb. Paying for breakfast on my way out I still don’t know what route I will take – but that’s what I enjoy about this approach. It’s an adventure every time and although the streets are familiar it’s always exciting and unpredictable.
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