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Posts Tagged ‘photography’

Super Bugs: The Biggest, Fastest, Deadliest Creepy Crawlies on the Planet, John Woodward with Dr George McGavin (Dorling Kindersley 2016)

Super Bugs is a big and lavishly illustrated book aimed at children, but I think adults will get the most out of it. It beats film and the internet on their own ground: the images are very powerful and very detailed. In fact, if you’re an arachnophobe or an entomophobe, I wouldn’t recommend opening it. There are spiders here as big as hats and beetles as big as small dogs.

I’m fascinated rather than repulsed by spiders and insects, but I wouldn’t like to meet a vinegaroon in the flesh – or in the oil-dark, glittering carapace. But vinegaroons, or whip scorpions, look more ferocious than they are. They defend themselves by spraying a vinegar-like chemical, hence their name. Not deadly.

Centipedes and real scorpions, on the other hand, are as fearsome as they look. The giant centipede on pages 52 and 53 is magnified to the thickness of an arm, with poisonous fangs as big as fingers. I was uncomfortably reminded of James Bond’s encounter with a giant centipede in Dr No (1958), but the image would probably been more disturbing if it had been life-sized, rather than much bigger.

Then it would have looked more real. A centipede can’t grow as big as an arm and you don’t have to know about oxygen-diffusion and the inefficiency of arthropod respiration to understand that. But we would have understood centipedes and other arthropods quicker if they were so big, because then we would have seen the details of their bodies more clearly. The microscope has been essential to the development of modern science and the giant photos here are a reminder of that.

So are the short but interesting texts that accompany each photo section. There is a world of wonder inside and outside the most ordinary-seeming insect. Not that any insect is really ordinary, but this book collects some of the strangest, from wasps with metal in their ovipositors to beetles that look like violins. Plus peacock spiders, anaesthetic-equipped ticks, and star-shaped-egg-laying tardigrades, which might be called the toughest of the tiniest.

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Moon Observer's Guide by Peter GregoPhilip’s Moon Observer’s Guide, Peter Grego (Philip’s 2015)

If you ask someone to name the most important inventions in history, two will often be overlooked: the microscope and the telescope. You could say that one lowered the floor of the universe and the other raised the ceiling: we suddenly became aware of wonders that had previously been too small or too far away for us to see.

Practically speaking, the microscope might seem by far the more important, because it’s taught us so much about life on earth, not least our own. But the continued existence of humanity may actually depend on the telescope. Geologists have discovered that the earth has repeatedly been struck by asteroids; astronomers may be able to spot the next one before it hits. Otherwise we may follow the dinosaurs, trilobites, eurypterids and countless other once-flourishing groups into extinction.

If you want to see what asteroids and other large rocks can do to a celestial body, Mother Nature has kindly provided us with a giant memento mori: the Moon. The biggest scars there are visible with the naked eye, but it took the telescope to reveal quite what they looked like and quite how pock-marked the lunar surface is. As Peter Grego writes:

All the Moon’s ringed basins, ‘walled plains’ and the overwhelming majority of craters visible through the telescope were formed by asteroidal impact. […] Copernicus was blasted out of the lunar crust about 800 million years ago by an asteroid measuring up to 10 km across. The 29 km diameter crater Kepler, 500 km to the west of Copernicus, was formed at around the same time. (“Lunar geology and the Moon’s features”, pp. 13-4)

Grego knows a lot about the Moon and this book is the fruit of more than thirty years of selenoscopy, dating back to his first “systematic observations” in 1982:

Since that time, through patient observing and recording, the lunar landscape has become to me a broadly familiar place, yet always full of wonder. Today only a sliver of moon is visible, and the eastern lunar seas and their surrounding craters provide a visual delight until the Moon sinks into the haze above the city and its image dims, shimmers and degrades. (pg. 5)

The city was Birmingham back in 2002. Cities aren’t just noisy, dirty and harmful to wildlife. They also deprive us of one of the greatest sights in nature: the night sky. Light pollution is silent, tasteless and physically harmless, but it deserves much more attention from conservationists. The Moon can be big enough and bright enough not to be wholly drowned by it, but it’s lèse-majesté against the Queen of the Night all the same.

It also makes life much harder for amateur astronomers. Then again, perhaps that increases the rewards. And the Moon isn’t confined to the night sky, of course: you can observe it in full daylight using nothing more than binoculars. Serious observation demands a telescope, however, and Grego devotes a full section to what’s available. Inter alia, he himself has a “150mm f/8 achromatic refractor with digital camcorder setup with a zoom eyepiece for afocal video photography” (ch. 5, “Recording Your Observations”, pg. 144). Digital imaging and enhancement are now routine: modern technology can get “startling results from a seemingly mediocre video sequence” (pg. 146), sharpening and focusing blurred images.

But Grego and his fellow selenographers are still doing what Galileo, Thomas Harriot and other early astronomers did centuries ago: drawing and sketching the Moon. There’s a good practical reason to do this, as recent science-news has confirmed: “drawing pictures of information that needs to be remembered is a strong and reliable strategy to enhance memory”. There is a lot of detail to learn on the Moon. It’s a fractal place: there are craters at every scale, from the microscopic to hundreds-of-kilometres wide and “it is estimated that the Moon’s surface is studded with more than 3 trillion (3,000,000,000,000) craters larger than a metre in diameter” (pg. 9).

So learning your way around the Moon is a fractal process: first you learn to recognize the giant features, like Copernicus, Kepler and the maria (seas), montes (mountains) and valles (valleys), then you begin to fill in the gaps, then the gaps between the gaps, then the gaps between those. Grego supplies maps and commentary to help you on your way:

The polygonal crater Timaeus (33 km) perches on W. Bond’s south-western wall and surveys across the plains of Mare Frigoris across to the Montes Alpes, 175 km to the south. Archytas (32 km) and Protagoras (21) are two sharp-rimmed but somewhat misshapen craters whose dark shadow-filled eyes keep watch over the northern approaches of Mare Frigoris. (ch. 4, “Moonwatching”, Day seven, pg. 87)

He’s never finished learning about the Moon, however, and neither will anyone else. It’s a life-long adventure and although the Moon might seem cold and unchanging, at least over a human life-span, there are rare events called TLP, or “Transient Lunar Phenomena”, to look out for. These are “apparent obscurations, glows or flashes on the Moon’s surface” that don’t have definitive explanations. Are rocks collapsing? Is sublunar gas leaking out? Might there even be life there after all?

Life is highly doubtful, but Grego notes that “lunar topography is virtually neglected by professional astronomers” (pg. 6), so amateurs still have the chance to make important discoveries. This book might help someone to do that, but the rewards of selenoscopy don’t depend on advancing science or using clever technology. Grego opens the book by asking “Why Observe the Moon?”, then quotes an excellent answer to that question from the French astronomer Camille Flammarion and his book Astronomy for Amateurs (1903). What Flammarion said more than a century ago is still true today:

From all time the Moon has had the privilege of charming the gaze, and attracting the particular attention of mortals. What thoughts have not risen to her pale, yet luminous disk? Orb of mystery and of solitude, brooding over our silent nights, this celestial luminary is at once sad and splendid in her glacial purity, and her limpid rays provoke a reverie full of charm and melancholy. (“Why Observe the Moon?”, pg. 4)

In fact, you could say that the Moon is a touchstone of human nature. Chimpanzees and gorillas may be almost identical to us in their genes, but they don’t talk, make art or gaze at the Moon in wonder. We still do and although we don’t usually worship the Moon any more, we may owe it our very existence. How important have the tides been in the evolution of life on earth? They provided a zone of transition for the emergence of plants and animals from the sea, and perhaps a Moon-less Earth would also be a Man-less Earth.

But the Earth could have Moon without Man if it’s struck by an asteroid of sufficient size. The scars on the Moon’s surface should be constant reminders of the vigilance that’s necessary and the technology that we still need to develop. But the Moon is memento mori in more ways than one. Asteroid strikes are pinpricks by comparison with what may have happened to the Earth in the remote past:

Now widely accepted to be the most likely origin of the Moon is the giant impact or ‘big splash’ theory. This theory suggests that a Mars-sized planet (around half the size of the Earth) smashed into the young Earth, disintegrating the impactor and the Earth’s mantle at the site of impact. A cloud of debris was splashed into near-Earth orbit, and the outer rings of this temporary ring of material coalesced to form the Moon. (ch. 1, pg. 21)

As Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s great character Professor Challenger pointed out in 1913: there are “many reasons why we should watch with a very close and interested attention every indication of change in those cosmic surroundings upon which our own ultimate fate may depend”. The Moon should frighten as well as awe and enchant us, or we might not survive to be awed and enchanted. This book will help you understand all these aspects of the Queen of the Night.

I also hope that Grego will write a sequel to it one day: Moon Tourist’s Guide. We’re still on schedule for at least some of the future envisaged by Arthur C. Clarke in his novel A Fall of Moondust (1961), which was set in the mid-twenty-first century. A moon-cruiser called Selene may not be sailing in a basin of dust as “fine as talcum-powder” by then, but there may still be lunar tourism. If so, selenographers like Peter Grego will be able to see close-up what they’ve long surveyed from afar.

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Volcano Discoveries by Tom Pfeiffer and Ingrid SmetVolcano Discoveries: A Photographic Journey around the World, Tom Pfeiffer and Ingrid Smet (New Holland 2015)

Volcano Discoveries is a dull title for a dazzling book. I would have called it Gods of Fire instead. Mountains are naturally awe-inspiring, but ordinary ones are like slumbering or watchful gods. Volcanoes are mountain-gods that come to life, spewing fire, breathing smoke, devastating the landscape and sometimes wiping out cities. And volcanoes have been worshipped, as this book describes:

For the Mayans, in an interesting parallel to the ancient Egyptians, the pyramid was a very special shape and a holy place that connected the world with the gods. In the mountainous regions of western Guatemala, the Mayans interpreted volcanoes as natural pyramids and, unless in eruption, climbing to their summits was their way to worship them. (“Guatemala: Volcanoes of the Mayans”, pg. 153)

In Italy, the fire-god Vulcanus gave his name first to one fire-mountain, in the Aeloian archipelago, then to all of them (“Vulcano”, pg. 50). In Hawaii, Pele is the volcano-goddess, appearing either as “a tall beautiful young girl or a bent, ugly old woman” (“Hawaii”, pg. 122). Gods, goddesses and demons are everywhere in the stories told about volcanoes. That’s why Gods of Fire would have been a much better title.

But the German volcanologist Tom Pfeiffer is presumably plugging his company VolcanoDiscovery. He supplies the photographs; the Belgian geologist Ingrid Smet supplies the text. His images and her words work well together, but there’s a collaboration in the images too, like the two aspects of Pele. Some of the images are fiery and full of action, as blazing lava fountains against starry skies or pours in blood-red rivers down a slope. Others are bleak: lifeless cones, grey ash-fields, black pavements of cooled lava.

The two kinds of image contrast very effectively, as the book tours every volcanic region of the world from Iceland to Indonesia. And while some images are spectacular, some are small. The huge snow-covered cone of Shishaldin, “in the Aleutian chain”, is spectacular (pg. 141), like the vast plume of smoke belching from Fuego de Colima in Mexico (pg. 149) and the churning lava lake of Marum in the Pacific (pg. 175). Small images include ferns growing in cooled lava (pg. 139); yellow crystals of sulphur around the mouth of a “fumarolic vent” (pg. 74); and a close-up of “Pele’s hair”, or “elongated lava strings that quickly cooled down and became glass” (pg. 126).

So there’s every scale, every stage of volcanic activity, and every kind of slope, steam-plume and smoke-cloud, plus lots of facts, figures and interesting asides in the texts. If you’re interested in volcanoes, the gods of fire are waiting here. If you can raise a glass of tequila to them, even better: “whereas volcanic soils are being used throughout the world to grow grapes for wine production, in Mexico they are used for cultivation of the blue agave – the plant from which tequila is distilled” (“Mexico”, pg. 143).

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Plankton Wonders of the Drifting World by Christian SardetPlankton: Wonders of the Drifting World, Christian Sardet (The University of Chicago Press 2015)

Originally published in French as Plancton, aux origines du vivant, this is a big book on a tiny subject. A microscopic subject, in fact. Or mostly so:

It is not easy to collect and study a drifting ecosystem consisting of a vast multitude of organisms ranging in size from less than 1 micron to tens of meters, over 10-million-fold difference. The smallest beings are viruses, and then bacteria and archaea. The largest are threadlike colonial cnidarians (siphonophores such as Praya dubia) that can reach more than 50 meters when extending their fishing filaments. (Introduction, pg. 16)

Nothing unites these organisms except the way they drift on the ocean’s currents: “plankton” is from the same Greek root as “planet”, which is literally a wandering star. And if there is life on another planet or one of its moons, it may be no stranger than some of the organisms here. And may be less so. The faintly dizzying smell of ink that rose from the pages of the copy I looked at went well with the phantasmagoric colours and shapes on those pages. Some are beautiful, some are grotesque, all remind me of a line from Aquinas: Unus philosophus fuit triginta annis in solitudine, ut cognosceret naturam apis – “One philosopher was thirty years in the wilderness that he might know the nature of a bee” (Expositio in Symbolum Apostolorum, 1273).

The philosopher at work here is the French marine biologist and planktonologist Christian Sardet, creator of the Plankton Chronicles project and a worthy heir to Jacques Cousteau, who sailed around the world to capture images of macroscopic life like whales, dolphins and squid. Sardet sails around the world to capture the microscopic.

In this, he’s also a worthy heir to Ernst Haeckel, the German biologist who first popularized the beauty of microscopic marine life in books like Kunstformen der Natur (1904), or “Artforms of Nature”. His books truly were art, because he illustrated rather than photographed his subjects, like the “siliceous skeletons of polycystine radiolarians” on page 85, which are reproduced from Kunstformen.

Something is lost in a photograph, but the door of technology can’t be closed now and some images could only be captured by a photograph, like the instant in which a misleadingly named predator meets its next meal on page 166:

The naked pteropod Clione limacia, or “sea-angel”, is a torpedo-like creature a few centimeters long. Furiously flapping its fins, it speeds through the water hunting its favorite prey, the coil-shelled thecosome pteropod Limacia helicina (lower left corner). On contact, Clione immediately ejects six buccal cones, grabs the prey, then eats it slowly with its raspy tongue. Clione roam the cold polar waters where they can reach high densities comparable to the tiny shrimp that constitute krill. Sea angels are themselves a major food for marine animals.

The photograph, “taken by Alexander Semanov in the White Sea” (off Russia), looks like a Lovecraftian deity descending on a Lovecraftian demon. Velella, a beautiful blue cnidarian that floats on the surface, propelled by the wind, is more like something from Clark Ashton Smith. There’s a photograph of a specimen of Velella about to be eaten, with gourmet-like delicacy, by a giant sun-fish.

Lovecraft and Smith would have enjoyed not just the images in this book, but the language too. The colours and shapes are phantasmagoric and so are the scientific names: from Asterionellopsis to Xystonella, from Phaeodactylum to Meganictyphanes. But the terminology is complex because it has to be and this is actually very clear writing:

These three spumellarian polycystines measure between 50 and 100 microns. To capture microscopic prey, they use membranous and cytoplasmic extensions, a peduncle called an axopode, and shorter extensions called rhizopodes that cover their entire surface. (pg. 79)

Christian Sardet translated this book himself from French with Dana Sardet and I’d like to sample it in the original. But Georgian would be even better: plankton should be written about in a strange language and beautiful alphabet. Of course, French and English are strange from the perspective of Georgian, but I don’t think the Roman alphabet could ever look beautiful to a Georgian. It’s functional and perhaps it’s good to have that contrast with the phantasmagoric.

If it is a contrast. Everything here is functional, no matter how strange or beautiful it seems:

Ctenophores owe their name to the Greek word ctene, referring to the minuscule combs comprised of thousands of fused cilia, arranged in eight rows on the gelatinous surface. The cilia of these comb plates are made of the same microtubular elements as those present in human cells. A simple nervous system controls the pulsating movement of the comb plates that act like tiny prisms, diffracting light in rainbow colors. (pg. 98)

No matter how remote ctenophores, diatoms, cephalopods, nudibranchs, tintinnids, chaetognaths and doliolids seem from humans, we have a common ancestor with them. And vertebrates are part of the plankton: larval fish drift there, so we were once part of it too. We mirror the world and the world mirrors us. But some parts of the mirror are more beautiful to look at than others and the world of plankton is certainly one of them.

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Drawing and Painting Plants by Christine BrodieDrawing and Painting Plants, Christina Brodie (A & C Black 2006)

A book that combines botany with beauty. Christina Brodie’s beautiful drawings of trees, flowers, leaves, fruit and seeds rely on a botanically trained eye. So it’s a textbook in two ways: artistic and scientific. The colours and shapes of plants please the eye; understanding those colours and shapes challenges the brain.

So does capturing them on paper with pencil, ink and paint. Art is an intelligent activity in more ways than one. Illustration has one big advantage over photography: the eye can be selective and adaptive in a way the lens can’t. When Christina Brodie drew a passion flower for page 31, she reduced it to its essentials to capture its structure: the three-pronged stigma, androgynophore, hinged anther, corona filament, perianth segments, and so on.

Colour and shading weren’t important, so she didn’t depict them. Elsewhere, she does: the autumn leaves on pages 96 and 97, for example. There are also two photographs on page 97 and they underline the advantage of illustration. Brodie’s leaves are isolated on stark white paper; her photographs have backgrounds and inessentials. Photography can’t focus and exclude in the way that illustration does and there’s no clear sense of purpose and mind in photography.

Nor does photography pay proper tribute to the complexity and depth of nature. A camera can record a leaf in the same time and with the same ease as it records a forest. Or record a star with the same easy as a galaxy. If photography is an art, it’s a lazy one. There’s nothing lazy about botanical art and some of the power of this book comes not just from the obvious skill of the artist but also from her implicit patience and perseverance. We see in an instant what sometimes must have taken hours to create.

So art is a ritual that pays proper respect to the deep evolutionary time that is also implicit in this book. From fruits and flowers to ferns and fungi: plants come in a huge variety of forms and have been evolving and diversifying for hundreds of millions of years. Anyone who opens this book will see that for themself, but botanical artists like Christina Brodie appreciate it more deeply. She’s a highly skilled artist and thanks to printing she’s able to share her skill with many others.

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Guide to Garden Wildlife by Richard LewingtonGuide to Garden Wildlife, Richard Lewington (British Wildlife Publishing 2008)

Richard Lewington illustrated the excellent Field Guide to the Dragonflies of Britain and Europe (2006). Here he’s both illustrator and author, describing and depicting the many species of mammal, reptile, bird, insect, arachnid and mollusc that can be found in a British garden. But that list isn’t exhaustive: millipedes and centipedes aren’t insects or arachnids:

Luminous Centipede Geophilus carpophagus

Dark and sombrely marked, this centipede is sometimes known as the “glow worm” as it gives off phosphorescent light at night. Found under loose bark and fallen logs, and in damp sheds and buildings. Widespread, it appears to be essentially coastal in northern England and Scotland. (“Chilopoda”, pg. 164)

Centipedes are strange animals. Luminous ones are even stranger. But glowing-in-the-dark isn’t the greatest feat of Geophilus carpophagus. Like all other centipedes, it has to solve complex biomechanical problems with an exigent allocation of neurons. As Lewington notes, centipedes are elusive, fast-moving and predatory. But they have flexible bodies that are never in the same orientation twice. Some very interesting algorithms must be at work in their brains and bodies.

In a more general sense, that’s true of every page in the guide proper, with Lewington’s drawings of beautiful or bizarre animals facing potted summaries of their behaviour and habitats. Evolution is a kind of algorithm and every species in this book, from the sparrowhawk, Accipiter nisus, on page 49 to the horse leech, Haemopis sanguisuga, on page 195, has a common ancestor. So evolution is the greatest artist of all, working with matter and energy to create millions of variations on that common ancestral theme.

But the human brain is also a product of evolution, so this book is actually part of nature. That would be true even if it used photographs, but I prefer illustrations. Photography is literally “writing with light”, but a camera is a mindless mechanism. Richard Lewington understands light and had to struggle as he learnt how to capture it on paper. By drawing nature, you acquire a deeper understanding of the richness and complexity of nature. When you draw as well as Richard Lewington and his brother Ian, who supplied the bird illustrations here, you can initiate the unartistic and bring them at least across the threshold of nature’s temple. There’s something magical and ritualistic in illustration that isn’t found in photography and a book like this is as much as an aesthetic experience as an intellectual one.

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Face PaintA Face to the World: On Self-Portraits, Laura Cumming (HarperPress 2009; paperback 2010)

The Aesthetics of AnimalsLife: Extraordinary Animals, Extreme Behaviour, Martha Holmes and Michael Gunton (BBC Books 2009)

Less Light, More NightThe End of Night: Searching for Natural Darkness in an Age of Artifical Light, Paul Bogard (Fourth Estate 2013)

The Power of Babel – Clark Ashton Smith, Huysmans, Maupassant


Or Read a Review at Random: RaRaR

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Front cover of The Cosmic Gallery by Giles Sparrow
The Cosmic Gallery: The Most Beautiful Images of the Universe, Giles Sparrow (Quercus 2013)

I’ve seen some of the images here on-line, but they’re better in a book. The resolution is higher and books satisfy the sense of touch and even the sense of smell in a way electronic media don’t and won’t for some time. You can leaf through The Cosmic Gallery, twist and turn the book as you please and enjoy the contrast between the ultra-modern photographs and the ancient way they are presented. The word “book” may be related to “beech”, because beeches have detachable bark that’s easy to write on. So The Cosmic Gallery combines past and present – and in more ways than one. The gorgeous star-fields here are records of not just of prehistory but of pre-humanity, because the light that made them had been travelling for millions of years when it was captured by human technology.

Some of star-photographs are so colourful and so full of grandeur, distance and antiquity that you can feel them growing like cathedrals in your head as you look at them. But their visual power isn’t accidental. These images aren’t intended purely as objective scientific records:

This book is in many ways a celebration of these amazing technological advances [in photography and computing] that have lately transformed our understanding of the universe. And yet we should not forget that the images on these pages are just as much a product of human artistry as the cave-paintings of Lascaux or the drawings of Lord Rosse [an Irish astronomer who made famous drawings of galaxies in the mid-nineteenth century]. Not only are these technical achievements an art in their own right, but also the representation of data gathered by a giant telescope or distant spacecraft is still ultimately a matter of human choice. Many of the images here make use of false or representative colours to highlight certain wavelengths or certain structures, or to bring entire invisible worlds within the narrow limits of our perception. (Introduction, pg. 11)

The star-photos are the most awe-inspiring and beautiful in the book. Some of the images from the solar system, being nearer to home and closer to the human scale, are almost domestic by comparison. But one of them reminds you of the vast scale of the solar system too: a now-famous shot of Saturn and its intricate halo of rings, taken by the Cassini probe as it looked sunward (pp. 148-9). To the left, “just inside the G ring at the ten o’clock position”, is a “pale blue dot”, easy to overlook, easy to ignore amid the splendour of the Saturnian rings. The dot is a planet called Earth, scene for all the horrors and heights of mankind. It’s a powerful reminder of how small we are even on a much-less-than-cosmic scale. But as C.S. Lewis pointed out: the ability to feel small is possible only to big creatures. Neither ants nor elephants are awed by the size, complexity and age of the universe, because neither ants nor elephants can appreciate them.

Nor can they appreciate the mathematics that permeates the universe and that ultimately is the universe. The patterns here are sometimes huge and spectacular, but the forces that shape dunes on Mar (pg. 86, 174) are shaping dunes on Earth too. And the unpredictability of a water-thread, falling, twisting and sputtering from a half-closed tap, is seen in Saturn’s chaotic satellite Hyperion, which has “no set rotation period, or even axis of rotation” (pg. 168). The swirl of colours in a close-up of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot (pp. 76-7) reminds me of swirling paint in a Francis Bacon; the “writhing mass of cells and tendrils” in sunspots (pg. 172) might almost be competing colonies of bacteria in a Petri dish, or even melted cheese on a pizza. From fire to ice, from dust to gas, from clouds to ultra-violet light, from sun-spots to melted cheese: Mathematica Magistra Mundi, Mathematics the Mistress of the World, oversees it all.

She also oversees the brains of the men – and it has been overwhelmingly men – responsible for designing and building the technology that has captured these images and brought them to the coffee-tables of the world. If we are here to go, as Brion Gysin claimed, then this book presents the looks before the leaps.

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How to Read a Photograph: Understanding, Interpreting and Enjoying the Great Photographers, Ian Jeffrey (2008)

I’ve looked at this book to ask myself an important question again. Is photography art? My answer is still: No, it’s a skill, not an art. Art should be ex nihilo or ex parvo: creation out of nothing or little. I don’t think there’s enough choice and possibility in photography for photographers to be called “great” in the same sense that painters or sculptors or novelists are great. There’s less genuine art in even the best photograph than in even the worst painting. Or the worst painting that aims at some kind of realism, that is. But then good photography has been responsible for a lot of very bad art. Photographs mirror reality very quickly and cheaply and artists began to stop competing with them in the nineteenth century. Ars est celare artem, runs the old Latin saying: “the art is to conceal the art”. You aren’t supposed to see the brush-strokes in pre-photographic art or its modern heirs. But some artists asked: if you don’t see the brush-strokes, how do you know it’s Art-with-a-capital-A? And how do you know that we’re Artists? Yes, the rot that started with Impressionism and quickened with abstract art has reached high putrefaction in conceptual art and mountebanks like Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin.

Colour photography only made the flight from realism faster, but almost all the photographs in this book are monochrome, sometimes by necessity, like the ones from the nineteenth and early twentieth century, sometimes by artistic choice, like the more modern ones. There’s often more power in a monochrome photograph: colour is more exciting and eye-catching, but also more distracting. The viewer isn’t presented simply with shapes and outlines, with light and shade. That’s why some photographers choose to eschew colour, even in the twenty-first century. All photographers choose to eschew another distraction: motion. Unless, like Tomatsu Shomei from Japan, they represent it in a blurred photograph, like the B-52 he captured on Okinawa in 1969. Colour or monochrome? Still or blurred? Yes, there is a lot of choice in photography, but it’s the choice of the right moment, the right light, the right angle, the right combination of images, not the much longer and more difficult choices made in painting and sculpture. That’s why I call photography a skill rather than an art. True, photographs can be more memorable and thought-provoking than some traditional art, but they’re memorable and thought-provoking in a different way. A painting is rather like a cooked meal; photographs are more like raw ingredients that you cook for yourself.

One of the things you can cook from them is a sense of ephemerality-in-permanence. On page 46 there’s a photograph of two young German cadets taken by an unknown photographer in the springtime of 1914, “just” before “the outbreak of the Great War”. One of them is grinning with his hands in his pockets. It’s a happy moment in a life that may have ended a few weeks later. Or a few decades later – who knows? What we do know is that the young cadet is certainly dead now and certainly did not stay young if he survived the war. The photograph has frozen him permanently in that happy, carefree moment: ephemerality-in-permanence, as I said. But photographs can be ephemeral too, if they exist in single copies. In his autobiography Little Wilson and Big God (1987), the Mancunian writer Anthony Burgess describes another early photograph:

My mother left the stage and became a shopping housewife on those thoroughfares [in Harpurhey]. Just before the War of 1914-18 began, she gave birth to my sister Muriel. I had a photograph of the two of them, long since eaten up by Malayan humidity and termites, and it showed a firm-featured woman of considerable blonde beauty and a promise of similar beauty in the daughter. (Op. cit., pg. 16)

Burgess’s mother and sister both died in the influenza epidemic at the end of the war, so the photograph was one of the few things he had to remember them by. A drawing or painting, unless he had made it himself, would not have been an emotional loss in the same way: it would have been a meal cooked by someone else, not raw ingredients to cook for himself. Unless you know some of the people or scenes in this book personally, you aren’t likely to be affected by the photographs in the way Burgess must have been when he looked at his lost mother and sister. But some of the photos are affecting precisely because you don’t know their subjects and couldn’t ever have known them. The photograph called “The Mountain Nymph” on page 22 was taken in 1866 by Julia Margaret Cameron, for example, and Cameron herself died in 1879. The girl in the photograph is attractive, but sad for an unknown reason. She’s also long dead, so the reason will remain unknown. Overleaf is another powerful photo by Cameron: “Iago. Study from an Italian” of 1867, which shows a stubbly, unattractive young man whose face is nevertheless full of character and interesting lines and curves. He’s also long dead. So, apparently, are the luminosity and richness of these nineteenth-century photographs and the almost sacramental care with which they were created.

The chemicals got much cheaper and easier to use later, so photographs lost the aura of Cameron’s work or of “The Broken Wave, Sète”, taken by the Frenchman Gustav le Gray in 1857. It shows a shore, a ship and some sea, with a wave breaking on rocks in the foreground. It’s simple, but it casts a spell. As photography got easier, it got more informal, but informality has a power of its own, like the unposed street-scenes captured by Louis Vert and Paul Géniaux in Paris at the turn of the century. Second-long slices of vanished life and vanished lives: the children are gone just as the adults are. The trees captured by Gustav le Gray in his “Study of Tree Trunks, Fontainebleau” (c.1855-7) may be still be there, but the sand-patterns and bird-tracks of Edward Weston’s “Dunes, Oceano” (1936) may not even have lasted out the day on which he photographed them. The mathematics behind the patterns is still at work, though, and so is the male gaze that will feast on the female “Nude” lying on the same dunes and photographed by Weston in the same year. It’s an interesting study in contrast: firm flesh and shifting sand; dark hair and white skin. It’s not a pornographic photo, but the girl is naked and her breasts, thighs and pubic hair do supply some of the “Opium of the Peephole” so widely available in our ever-more voyeuristic culture.

The girl on page 301 made her living from supplying that opium: she’s a “Topless Dancer in Her Dressing Room, San Francisco, California, 1968”. Wearing a blonde wig and sparkly, cut-away dress, she has, in the immortal words of the Finnish stoner-rockers Erotic Support, “Tits to Die For”: large, shapely and firm, as one delicate index finger held against the left breast subtly indicates. She’s touching her chin with her other hand and looks both attractive and slightly bored or melancholic. Did the photographer Diane Arbus ask her to adopt that pose? Yes, I think so, because her index finger echoes the raised index finger of St Thomas in a Leonardo print propped unobtrusively on the dressing-table behind her. Ian Jeffrey, who wrote the text for this book, calls this “a curious reference” and you could speculate for a long time about its meaning. I don’t think you need to speculate about the opium of the peephole in this photo or the male gaze that absorbs the opium. The photo’s subject is a topless dancer after all and her breasts, slightly above the centre of the square photograph, dominate the scene, partly because they’re breasts, partly because they’re spectacular, and partly because they’re paler than the sun-tanned skin above them.

If the photograph were in colour, it would be nearer pornography, but it’s monochrome, so it’s a study in shape and shade, not in biological reality. It’s an interesting study too: the dancer’s glamorous clothes and breasts, at the height of their natural perfection and beauty, contrast with the back-stage drabness and clutter of the dressing-room. But in a wider sense, all the photographs here are about contrast. Why choose that moment rather than another? Why photograph that face rather than another? Sometimes it’s hard to see why, sometimes it’s easy. Memorable or mediocre, contrived or compelling, photography altered culture for ever with its chemical chiaroscuro – and chromaticism – but I’d still claim it’s a skill rather than an art. Even the most skilful photography doesn’t match the art of a painting like The Roses of Heliogabalus, but what it couldn’t match it could undermine. Photography and moving pictures haven’t been as destructive as automobiles, modernity’s “mechanical Jacobins”, but their importance in history is partly or even largely negative, in my opinion. Now that they’re here, few of us would want to be without them, but that’s because the opium of the peephole is nearly as addictive as real opium. But it isn’t as inspirational to art or artists.

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