There is something so emancipating about Marie Menken’s experimental short film, Lights – the prompt for The Kick-About #34. It expresses a sort of child-like wonder in the way in which the camera transforms what it sees – municipal Christmas decorations into streaking discs of glowing colour and traffic into living electrified scribbles. You get a sense of Menken playing and exploring, embracing the ‘failure’ of the technology at her disposal to cope with light, time and motion, producing vibrant smears and patterns from otherwise rather ubiquitous components.
With this playfulness very much in mind, I tried something quick and dirty: painting a sheet of glass with black acrylic paint,before scratching parts of the painted surface away in the form of lines of irregular dots and dashes. Very simply, the painted sheet of glass was then positioned in front of windows, bright environments and television screens, and the surface of the glass photographed. Sometimes, during one exposure, I would push the focus from pin-prick sharp to diffuse, which had the satisfying effect of ‘spherizing’ the scratched patterns on the surface of the glass, producing the illusion of strings of lights or illuminated bubbles. I don’t mind admitting some of the resulting images had me laughing out loud with pleasure, so closely did they recall the aesthetic of mid-century avant-garde animations and the like. It gave me a secret squizz of pleasure too – the trick of it, the very fact of me not, in fact, photographing strings of fairy-lights or pastel-coloured Christmas baubles, or those long balloons out of which you might fashion a poodle: no, just a sheet of glass, painted black, with marks scratched into it using the end of a matchstick and a zester swiped from the kitchen drawer.
After that, there was no stopping me, and for days afterwards, I was lying on different floors around my house trying a bunch of different things with this same sheet of hurriedly painted glass. There have been moments over this last fortnight when I have been completely at peace creatively, just trying stuff out and worrying not at all about the other things a man of my age and responsibilities should probably be thinking about. I tried a whole bunch of set-ups and produced a tonne of images, which I’ll be sharing on here over the coming days. It’s been great.
A final clutch of bird-based photographs, kicked-off by The Kick-About #33, and the method was a little different this time. An animation sequence was created from this previous set of photographs, which was then layered twice, with new stills exported from the resulting composite. I wanted to see if I could further efface the original subject, while dailling up the ‘flutter’. I enjoy the delicacy of the resulting images, evoking birds, of course, but also butterflies and other more exotic wisps. At time of writing, the mechanism inside the blue bird has worn out. We’re both done with all this for a while at least.
With the addition of an old mirror, I was now able to get my little pecking blue bird ‘ice-skating’ in imperfect circles, producing these barely-there photographs that somehow bring to mind decorative motifs of the 1950’s. Again, the illustrative effects of long-exposure on this little tin toy and its lo-fi domestic set-up fills me with satisfaction – and ideas for more ambitious games one fine day. I’m quite a long way from Herzog’s dancing chicken now.
Twenty years-or-so ago, one of my oldest friends and I went on a couple of road-trips, stopping-off both times at Sidmouth in Devon. Sidmouth is a very genteel seaside town distinguished by its red sandstone cliffs – which you can’t appreciate in any of these black and white photographs! Our first visit was in the first month of 2000. I was packing some lovely 1600 black and white film, always good for cranking up the drama. In the topmost image, my friend, Jules, is wearing my blue and white striped jumper, a wonderfully heavy thing I was rarely seen out of in those days, a comfort blanket with sleeves. I think Jules must have been feeling the cold that day, and I was feeling chivalrous – which is why she’s wearing it, and not me, as she stares moodily out to sea. Our second visit to Sidmouth was more seasonal, Summer 2001. The day we arrived at the beach, the air was soft and luminously bright with sea mist. I happened to have some black and white infra-red film in my camera, which produced some richly atmospheric pictures with a sense of silence and timelessness.
A change of light and space for the little wind-up blue bird toy, the camera working harder, the subject of the photograph softening still further, with the highlights rim-lighting the toy’s outline producing whirling white propellers. I always love it when the in-camera transformations are so unexpected; I clapped by hands with child-like pleasure at some of these images – at the unknowability of their more matter-of-fact provenance. Surely this is magic, these games of time and light. This is what I’ve come to so enjoy about The Kick-About, the way it gives me license to pick something up – in this instance, something as unlikely as a dancing chicken – and then run with it until my curiosity expires or other commitments intrude. More transformations ahead!
Another day, another tin-toy, and this time a rather wonderful clockwork ‘blue bird’ that pecks elegantly at the ground while turning in circles. Inspired by the creative gauntlet set down by The Kick-About #33, I continued to enjoy the vanishing effects of movement + long exposure, with the design and motion of this particular toy promising lots of enjoyably ephemeral outcomes and ideas too for further play.
So, recap… The Kick-About #33 got me thinking about dancing chickens and long-exposure photography, and in lieu of actual chickens, I sufficed with the clock-work variety. One of the tin-toys I sourced to meet this latest creative challenge was a little pecking chick, which, once wound-up and released, bounced around frenetically. I particularly liked the way the longest exposures transformed the pecking chick into a vibrating little molecule.
I was struck by the folksy, pop-culture qualities of Herzog’s dancing chicken – our prompt for The Kick-About No. 33 – and I was keen to investigate the movement of these performing animals too. The rather forlorn spectacle of these animals, in boxes, existing to entertain through repetitive actions, got me thinking about mechanical toys, so I acquired a mass-produced tin toy clock-work chicken and set about trying to capture its efforts to entertain me in the form of a series of long-exposure photographs. I tried a bunch of stuff – different exposures etc – and really enjoyed the unpredictability of the process, not least the waywardness of the clock-work rooster itself. Ultimately, there is something inescapably comedic about chickens, though I loved the way the object itself was effaced by some of the longer exposures, becoming something dreamier, ephemeral and odd. Suitably inspired, I turned my attentions to some other tin-toy birds I’d sourced, and soon kicked-off another series of photographic investigations, the results of which will follow on here over the coming days.