Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Oaks along the River Dart

The native oaks along the banks of the lower Dart have suggested a possible etymology, that - like the Derwent - the river takes its name from the Brythonic for oak (Old Gaelic dair, Breton derv, Cornish derow, Welsh derw), but it is also true that the root der- / dar- / dur- means water (Breton dour, Cornish dowr, Wlesh dŵr) and that dairt is Erse for a heifer.

"I know what Mr. Baxter says of Derventio, that it comes from the Welsh Derwent or Dirwyn, all of a piece with his Corguba aforementioned; inventions and boilings-over of a fertile brain. The Welsh tongue never had the word Derwent; therefore his whole building is without foundation. I have traced it to its original British name, but will not attempt the etymology of it. If it is from Derw, oak: why was not every river that ran through a forest called Derwenydd?"
Letter from Mr. Lewis Morris, of Penbryn, Cardiganshire, to Mr. Edward Richard, at Ystrad Meuryg, in that County, The Gentleman's Magazine, vol. 66 (1789)

Monday, 26 September 2011

Monday, 29 August 2011

Field maple leaves with cast shadows

Burgess Field, 26 June 2010.

Shadows are negative in being holes in light (and may as in the self-shadows of the second picture burn holes in positives - here too the negative spaces and the self-shadows are similar in form, or rather inverses). But shadows are also like imprints in casting shapes. Plato in the Republic says of images that they are "in the first place, shadows, and in the second place, reflections in water and in solid, smooth and polished bodies and the like."
Shadows lose more information about the object producing them than reflected light, and in this they are eloquent reminders of the dimness of our perception. Any image is just that, an image, and a shadow. (Plato's Cave.)

Cast shadows are, of course, the Origin of Painting:

It was through his daughter that he
[Butades] made the discovery; who, being deeply in love with a young man about to depart on a long journey, traced the profile of his face, as thrown upon the wall by the light of the lamp. Upon seeing this, her father filled in the outline, by compressing clay upon the surface, and so made a face in relief, which he then hardened by fire along with other articles of pottery.
-- Pliny, Natural History (c. 77-79 CE), Book XXXV.

In the eighteenth century there was both a vogue for silhouettes (so-named along with other cheaply produced objects á la Silhouette in times of austerity under the brief spell of Etienne de Silhouette as
French finance minister in 1759) and for the theme of Dibutades (the Corinthian Maid) in such paintings as David Allan, Origin of Painting (1775), Joseph Wright of Derby, The Corinthian Maid (1782-1784), Joseph-Benoît Suvée, Dibutades, or the Origin of Drawing (1791), and Jean-Baptiste Regnault, The Origin of Painting: Dibutades Tracing the Portrait of a Shepherd (1785).

The role of shadows in the perception of shape, and their relation to light and space, are the subject of Michael Baxandall's Shadows and Enlightenment (Yale University Press, 1995), as well as the problem of how to paint them (for which also see Ernst Gombrich, Shadows: the depiction of cast shadows in Western art, (Yale University Press, 1995).

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Reflecting chamber

Hinksey Stream, 25 June 2010.

Still water here acts as a reflecting chamber, echoing the capture of light within a camera. Light is muted in its dark depths, the surface serves as picture plane, and flares of light hover in indeterminate relation to it. What is above and what below? Things are transformed while being turned around. The surface calls attention to itself in its disturbances and disruptions by floating material, such as white willow leaves, early fallers, caught by twigs stalled in their course downstream, their still airborne kin behind them in reflection.

Friday, 26 August 2011

Flowering Rush and Yellow Water-lily

Flowering Rush (Butomus umbellatus) and Yellow Water-lily or Spatterdock (Nuphar lutea), along Hinksey Stream, 25 June 2010.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Banded Demoiselles

Banded Demoiselle (Calopteryx splendens), 25 June 2010.

These darting blue males flew in packs criss-crossing bank to bank, at
a place where the slow-moving stream prepares to round a bend. Between dances all would rest, each on its own plant stalk or blade of grass. In a still image they are too much as though pinned in a display case, mitigated in the first by the various aspects of flight in which each of the three damselflies has been caught - lending a sort of Muybridge motion to it, and in the second there is a chiasmus in the two pairs below left and upper right. Just as the half-seen iridescent blur of a passing kingfisher, their flight is conjured in memory by more allusive means, such as Hopkins' line "As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme". Only here damselflies rather than dragonflies (the distinction mainly lying in how they hold themselves when at rest: damselflies fold their wings over their body, dragonflies keep them outstretched; also, dragonflies have larger eyes that touch).

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Two adjacent pairs of telegraph poles

21 June 2010.

Telegraph poles stride across the land in seven-league boots, the wires they carry plunging towards the horizon along perspective lines. They hum and hiss when one approaches too close. Seen out of train windows they can be malevolent:

The door of the compartment was open and I could see the corridor window, where the wires – six thin black wires – were doing their best to slant up, to ascend skywards, despite the lightning blows dealt them by one telegraph pole after another; but just as all six, in a triumphant swoop of pathetic elation, were about to reach the top of the window, a particularly vicious blow would bring them down, as low as they had ever been, and they would have to start all over again.
-- Nabokov, Speak, Memory, 1951

In their geometry of straight(ish) lines – as the crow flies – they represent our idealization of space (Euclidean geometry, perspective). They map out the physical expanse of the land but on the other hand they make possible that near-instantaneous traversal of distance that has been instrumental in causing spatial perplexity. In their vague air of menace, or their uncanny giant reach, or their consorting with the birds, flying or perching, they are agents of that psychical space in which we try to situate ourselves.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

Walking past a gate

21 June 2010.

When walking and looking at a fixed point – such as a lone tree in a field – the land appears to rotate around this focal point (an effect more noticeable when gazing out of a train window at a fixed point in the middle distance). Here a gate, which turns around a fixed post, is a surrogate for this rotational sense.
In the first picture the configuration of elements – steel gate, wooden posts, the square formed by two crossbars of an old stile(?), ragged blue plastic on barbed wire – stand together on a horizontal base like a sculptural group. While turning my head to keep looking at the configuration the elements move relative to each other in a mutually dependent way that articulates the space they occupy. In the picture plane there is the flattening of the square to a thin rectangle, the expansion and contraction of the gap between gatepost and fencepost, and the turning of the gate about its corner post (left of post to hidden by post to right of post). Within the sequence of three pictures these shifts can be inspected at a remove from the original movement that produced them. For example, the gatepost and fencepost begin to the right of the picture frame as almost parallel verticals; in the second picture they are enlarged, move toward the centre of the frame and begin to lean toward each other (further, a secondary echo of implied motion and depth is introduced in the receding line of fenceposts diminishing vertically up to the top edge of the frame); and in the third picture the gatepost and fencepost return to their first size and have moved to the centre of the frame, where they lean toward each other a little further.
To the left of the frame the square and post move in counterpoint.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Details of a white wall

13 June 2010.

I had occasion to study carefully a patch of wall in the room I was staying in when I had the 'flu at the beginning of June last year. It lay right up close to my face when I was turned on my left side. The white wall's markings and absence of markings were a ground for my fevered imaginings in and out of sleep. As the fever passed my field of vision broadened and I began to observe the passing hours in the room by the changing light and shapes of shadows cast. The white walls returned to sites of unfocussed attention, planes reflecting light or holding shadows - places to put pictures on, but not to find pictures in.

John Cage said of Rauschenberg's White Paintings series that the panels hung on the walls functioned “like a clock of the room” in the way that they served as recorders and reflectors of patterns of light and shadow over the course of a day. In a sense then the White Paintings are without frames - or rather the frame of looking at them is not formed by the obvious boundaries: it is an enlarged frame that seeps into the environment.
Within a frame a different, imaginative time operates, that too of fever or sleep.

Thursday, 18 August 2011

Two grasses in black and white

12 June 2010.

After a severe bout of 'flu which laid me low for almost a fortnight I sought recuperation in the shade of the wooded slopes of Petřín hill, in which theatrical effects of light create small enclosed worlds and strike plants momentarily incandescent. Under trees' bower the sun's movement across the sky brings about mutable lighting, complicated further by the variable apertures arising from the movement above of the tree leaves in breaths of air. Spotlighting against a dark backcloth, such as in the first photograph, arises when the incline of hill aligns itself with sun's rays, long shadows letting in but few shafts of light. Plants reach and twist and turn, responding to rotations in the heavens, circadian rhythms finding echo in the pulsating patches of dappled light. In their growth forms the grasses feel out space with their exploratory limbs, moving with gestures characteristic to species, diurnally animated.

Monday, 15 August 2011

Na Vypichu

Vypich, Bělohorská, 30 May 2010.
On a path crossing from bus stop to tram stop, the clouds in the sky switching from light on dark to dark on light, like a positive to a negative.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Three variations on 6

From a skip container in Charles University Botanical Gardens, 21 May 2010.