More normally, I’d likely be in rural France now, but as everyone appreciates, 2020 is about ‘new normals’ and cutting our cloth accordingly. The old French house is pressed very deeply into the nature that surrounds it. It can even be difficult to relax at times because there’s always so much at which to look and to respond. One year (I don’t recall which) I stuffed a few packets of ‘sun paper’ into my luggage and spent a few happy hours producing quick-and-dirty cyanotypes from some of the more distinctive leaf and flower shapes culled from my immediate surroundings. I never tired of it, the pleasure of the immediacy of image-making in this way, and always, that perfect blue.
When you first move to a small seaside town there are certain irresistible behaviours, sociological tropes that cannot be swerved. Some of these include: eating more fish and chips than is good for you and sitting too long in the sun on the beach. Others include sneaking glances at men who are trying to put their pants on under a damp towel and failing, and of course, collecting shells, sea glass and soft, palm-sized pebbles from the foreshore and bringing them back to the house. Another classic behavior is photographing those artefacts in artful black and white. Images like the ones I’m sharing here are as ubiquitous as the very things they depict – and yet, when I look at them again today, I remember clearly those first few days, weeks, and months, when the novelty of the sea and its new proximity was a siren’s song, and in my sandy pockets, all this humble treasure.
We went out looking for another field of dreams this week – and didn’t find one. The field we did find was bordered by a small thin stream choked with weed. There were promising layerings of dried grass, shadows, reflected light on the surface of the water, and the pointillism of the duckweed itself, but the camera only collected these things together like unmixed ingredients, the resulting images in no way magical or greater than the sum of their parts.
That said, a short way from where we parked, tall tired grasses were heaped up like waves, leaning against other roadside plants, and beyond them, all the straight sentries of the wheat crop. The wheat field was higher than the road and pushed into the distance further by the stream, now hidden completely behind the scruffy embankment. The sun, which was setting behind me, cast cool greying shadows over the embankment, and the whole effect was one of striation and flat desaturated colour. So no, not quite a field of dreams, but something new and painterly to share.
This business of photographing fields in as painterly ways as possible began at the beginning of the lock-down with a late afternoon trip to walk among improbably yellow fields of rapeseed. The challenge was capturing how it felt to be out there in that moment – overwhelmed by landscape and overloaded by a sort of greediness/desperation to keep the shifting effects forever. A few simple strategies helped produce more immersive results, like always omitting any obvious markers of distance or scale, and putting the focus far off at the edge of things with an eye to melting away the detail.
After the fields of gold, there came the scratchier grasses at Oare, followed by the ox-eye daisies, milky and glaucous in the thinning sunshine. Sometime later, we would visit the orderly blue of a wheat field and then an unexpected crop of blue-beaded flax. But it was our trip to the meadow at Knave’s Ash that really inspired my greed for in-camera impressionism. The weather wasn’t great, the sun buried behind an unwashed soft-box of cloud, and yet, as I viewed the resulting photographs later that night, I experienced a proper sugar-rush of delight and satisfaction. Something had happened at Knave’s Ash, a serendipity of light and breeze, and colours so numerous and soft, I couldn’t believe my luck. You can thank this set of photographs for everything that happened next, the zealous pursuit of specialness in other unadopted spaces, the continuing quest to transform something often-seen into landscapes ‘galaxical and vivid’ (so described by poet and fellow blogger João-Maria), and I’ve been lost to this pursuit of ‘painting with fields’ ever since.
When Francesca Maxwell put forward the title of a book by Rebecca Solnit for our most recent Kick-About, I smiled. The prompt A Field Guide To Getting Lost seemed ready-made for an individual looking for a jolly good reason to push these images further. More than this, here was an opportunity to counter one of the systemic failures of these images – their respective failures of movement and of sound – for how can any of these stubbornly still images hope to express the whiffle of the breeze playing across the stems and tassels of all this grass, or the hungry way my camera and I turned about in an up-against-it chase of fleeting light and restless composition? How to convey the different moods elicited by these different fields and by all the associations gathering around their images – the dissolving and dematerialisations at Knave’s Ash, the fibre-optic swish-and-swizzle at Hart’s Hill, and the meditative tapestries at Boughton Scrub..? Make a film was the answer. No, wait. Make three films!
Bringing the meadow of Knave’s Ash into some semblance of movement was a simple job of long cross-dissolves and a suitably atomised choice of music, courtesy of Kevin MacLeod. The job here was mimic as sensitively as possible the diffusion of the images. When it came to trying to articulate the very different feel of Hart Hill, I had but a single guiding reference: Norman McLaren and Evelyn Lambert’s Begone Dull Care (1949), an animation created by painting and scratching directly onto the surface of the film in the service of giving visual expression to the jazz music of Oscar Peterson. My thinking around this film was less to evoke the ‘outdoors’ but rather the ‘indoors’ of my efforts to snaffle-up every last dart, arrow and filament of barley.
I know we were very lucky to find Boughton Scrub. A part of me suspects it only appears when you’re not looking for it, and if we went back to that peripheral place, we’d only find the sewage works and no evidence of those ox-blood coloured rumex spires or clouds of luminous thistle-flowers. For all the common-or-gardenness of the grasses and wild flowers in this scrubland, there was an unreality about this landscape. Even as I stood among it all, I knew it wouldn’t last, that I had to move quickly to steal as much of it for myself as possible. It was almost too colourful, more like some coral reef or martian landscape. The more I looked at the resulting photographs, the more they resembled zoomed-in details from Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights or like luxurious, too decadent wallpaper, or like tapestries hanging in the quiet chambers of some chivalraic folly. Meanwhile, my mind’s ear kept playing me lutes or harps, my mind’s eye showing me some soft-focused Burne-Jones maiden walking unhurriedly between the voiles of flower.
It will appear unseemly when I admit I have now watched the resulting film many times. I just find it immensely relaxing, cooling, quietening. I do not watch it admiringly, rather I just like going back there in the knowledge that it’s gone.
One last look at the vibrant plumage of Boughton Scrub, as the sun lowered and the time came finally to take our leave of this secret garden.
In writing about my enthusiasm for the Brothers Quay’s stop-motion animation, Street of Crocodiles, I was prompted to recall memories of my visits to Stoke Newington’s Abney Park cemetery. In turn, I was prompted to disinter some of the black and white 35mm photographs I knew I’d taken during these trips, but had otherwise forgotten about completely. I also forgot I’d written a short accompanying article on Abney Park for a magazine entitled Bite Me. The article was never picked up and the photographs likewise went unseen. For this week’s Throwback Friday, I’m sharing both.
The Lion & The Ivy
It will seem like a deficit of literary style were I to describe Abney Park cemetery as eerie – an ‘eerie cemetery’ is pretty much a tautology – and yet I can find no adjective better suited.
Abandoned by its original owners twenty-five years ago, but rescued from leafy obscurity by the London Borough of Hackney, Abney Park feels like a secret stumbled upon, its aura of neglect both poignant and perfect. I’ve just entered its gates, but I’m already seeing ghosts, though not the maggoty kind – rather the diaphanous spectres of Victorian ladies, who once came here to perambulate with parasols. After a moment’s hesitation, I follow in their long-dead footsteps.
Like the plush baize of ivy upholstering its tombstones, the extraordinary hush of Abney Park enshrouds me as completely. Before me lie thirty-two acres of simple slabs and sad-faced angels. Lying beneath me are three hundred thousand bodies resting in peace, and in pieces too – sixty-one million bones improving a soil that once nourished a thousand cultivars of rose, and a collection of named trees and shrubs surpassing that of the Royal Park at Kew. All of that was a hundred and sixty-five years ago. Today, the only roses on show are silk, their colours leached and cheerless. The only skeletons are those belonging to the withered docks, their desiccated flower spikes as upright as candelabras.
Again, the deep, evergreen quiet of the graveyard impresses me. Hard to believe that just beyond the boundaries of this once-forgotten necropolis, the yummy mummies and charity shop fashionistas of Stoke Newington are boarding buses, ordering lattes, and fretting about the organic credentials of their purple sprouting broccoli.
My ancient camera hanging from my shoulder, I journey deeper into the cemetery.
Above me, the vaulted arcs of branches close out the milky November sunshine, but spy-holes in the shrubbery afford tantalizing views of inner sunlit chambers. With their cheery illumination, and table and chair-like arrangements of headstones and graves, these vignettes remind me of parlours, and my imagination populates them with skeletal families. As clouds obscure the sun, these sanctums fade – as vanished now as the rooms of the original Abney House, the demolition of which in the mid nineteenth century inaugurated the cemetery. All that remains of Abney House today are the wrought iron gates at the cemetery’s entrance and, less tangibly, a brooding sense of history.
Departing from the graveyard’s more manicured pathways – so maintained by the Abney Park Cemetery Trust volunteers, who fight back the rising tides of ivy with garden shears and admirable philanthropy – I pick my way amongst the clutter of headstones. The upheavals of trees and the worming of roots have left these monuments skewed, their angels leaning like drunks. In places, the ground itself has opened, the graves cracked and yawning. I try not to look inside these sepulchral hollows, fearful of glimpsing more than decomposing leaves and the corpses of crisp packets. My ‘Rotten.com’ side wants to risk a closer examination of these cavities, but I sensibly pass them by, disallowing myself the sort of lethal curiosity favoured by first-to-die teens in dumb-arse ‘and-then-there-were-none-a-thons’.
Arriving now at the barred and burned-out chapel at the centre of the cemetery – an impressive gothic edifice boasting a large circular window and an air of despondency so potent the building almost seems to sigh – I do succumb more entirely to an involuntary attack of movie-induced paranoia. Craning my neck to gawk at the chapel’s impressive spire, I recall the moment Richard Donner made shish kebab out of Patrick Troughton, and I distance myself swiftly.
The Omen isn’t the only film evoked by Abney Park’s especial ambience. The mise en scène couldn’t be any more cinematic – an attribute not lost on the various film crews who’ve already snapped their clapperboards here. Indeed, I’m tempted to think the prop-wranglers may have left some of their set-dressings behind. The decapitated statue of the maiden I pass seems too designed to unnerve to be the work of mere vandals. Even some of the urns are gilding the lily by sporting Tim Burton-style fright wigs, fashioned from congested tendrils of ivy.
Somewhere behind me, dogs and their walkers are snapping branches. I can’t help glancing over my shoulder. As it happens, I am being tracked through the shrubbery. A furtive looking gentlemen wearing a black bomber jacket and a come-hither expression observes me optimistically from behind a voile of leaves. I realise I’m in more danger of having my bum pinched than my neck-bitten.
Signalling my disinterest in any such brief encounter, I change direction, but soon find myself face to face with another constant inhabitant of Hackney’s unlikely Eden – not a lusty queen this time, but a king of the jungle. The great stone lion watches me from his plinth, his supine body so powerfully white against the cemetery’s patina of shadows, the light meter in my camera goes berserk. The lion stands out for another reason, its design being more ostentatious than most of the other monuments here. Abney Park is unusual in that no part of its grounds is consecrated, and – phosphorescent lions excepted – the graveyard’s general abstemiousness from ornament reflects the non-conformist principles of its occupants. I’ve never heard of Frank C. Bostock – the individual commemorated by the show-off cat – but among the other eminent bones interred in Abney Park are the remains of William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army.
I notice the light is failing, and with it, a large part of my bravado. I didn’t even know I was nervous – until now. The lion is glowing with an almost spectral light, while the deepening shadows are stretching like panthers. Both my eyes and my camera are struggling to see, but my ears are acutely sensitive to every snap and heart-stopping scuttle emanating from the black valance of undergrowth. It’s time to leave this secret, sombre garden of the dead.
For a moment, I’m close to panic, certain suddenly I will be unable – or disallowed – to find my way out of these tangles of brambles and back to the noise and exhaust fumes of those red London buses. I resist the urge to run, but there is little I can do to mitigate the cold slick of perspiration greasing my forehead. The inebriated angels find me amusing, having witnessed this diminishing of courage a thousand times over, as cocksure visitors to the cemetery find themselves in this same race against the sunset.
I make it out of the cemetery safely, of course, and my fear is rendered instantly foolish by the inner-city milieu. I quickly dismiss my apprehension, but I cannot deny the impression Abney Park has made upon me; its inimitable character haunts my imagination – my camera film too – and like a serene, if lonely phantom, it boards the number 149 and follows me home.
Another crop of images this morning, featuring more of those striking swathes of rumex spires and daubs of purple thistle. Some of these begin to feel like I’m looking at sections of elaborate. luxurious wallpaper and I’m feeling the urge to tessellate!
A second visit to Boughton Scrub – a living tapestry of stitches, fine threads and scarlet skeins.
Late yesterday afternoon we found an extraordinary place, an improbable paradise of colour, texture and impressionist sensorial pleasure… in spitting distance of a sewage plant! I suspect we might have been engaging in some light trespassing, but the lure of the rust-red veination of the dock leaf flowers against the brushwork of the tall grass was too alluring! Vase-shaped thistle flowers peppered the view with constellations of purple, and the air was alive with bees, butterflies and the chatter of goldfinches. This unseen, overlooked field on the edge of more practical spaces was swooningly beautiful, and my camera, glutton that it is, gobbled up the landscape and couldn’t stop. More to follow!
The Kick-About #5 prompted me to exhume these images from the archive in advance of Throwback Friday, specifically Graeme Daly’s recollections of the basement in his father’s house, and particularly the suspicion with which he regarded the dolls who lived down there in the company of spiders.
In reference to the dolls that creeped him out as a child, Graeme articulated a particular paradox I recognised. Graeme wrote, “There has always been something about dolls that horrify me – in the best way.” I know that feeling too; an especial sensory sensation triggered by dolls and all the objects like them; the puppets, the mannequins, the waxworks – the uncanny objects.
I spent a good part of my masters degree investigating the uncanny, taking photographs and writing lengthily on its uses in art, film and literature. It all seems a very long time ago, but these images, originally taken on 1600 black and white film in the gloomy interiors of various antique shops, still reward me with a little prickle of unease – in the best way.
The Uncanny Object (1998) Phil Gomm