Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Recommendations for Brethren

I wrote my novel, Brethren, for a doctorate in creative writing at the University of Kent. I recently had the viva exam for this, and I passed with no corrections to the thesis. As I'm now looking for an agent or publisher for Brethren, I thought it might be helpful to publish a couple of quotations from the official examiners' reports.

From the external examiner, Adam Roberts: 

I have read a dozen—more, probably—CW PhD submissions novels over the last several years, and I am comfortable saying: Brethren is the best written and most compelling of them all. To put it plainly: this is an extraordinarily accomplished piece of fiction, that works at once as an extremely immersive and convincing historical novel (I remember the 1980s very well, and [it] gets every flavour and moment and nuance spot-on) and a compelling weird, often revolting but also haunting and even borderline transcendent Fantasy about the numinous intruding into our world. The technical mastery of character, dialogue, descriptive prose, the ability to select exactly the right detail to add vividness and atmosphere, without ever overloading the reader with too much detail, is close to impeccable. This is manifestly publishable work.

From the internal examiner, Amy Sackville:

Both components of the thesis, the novel, Brethren, and the critical essay on ‘Christian Fantasy’, are of an exceptionally high standard: intellectually rigorous, ambitious, and written with flair and originality. The novel asks questions about loss and faith—how it is practised, negotiated, and experienced—and brings both the fantastic and quotidian vividly to life. It is at once a grand metaphysical fantasy, and a story about teenagers coping with grief. This is a sincere exploration of the possibility of transcendent, or even meaningful, experience—through religion, but also through music, and in the end, through human contact. Indeed, the community offered by faith is only one aspect of a broader concern with belonging, solidarity, connection, vs. iconoclasm, individuality, and ego. … The uncanny or weird elements are realised in a way that tests the boundaries of language and description, making for a reading experience that is, at times, genuinely disturbing and disorientating. … The novel is technically adept—in terms of plotting, pacing, structure, characterisation, and the creation of a world, and in the management of tonal register—the book is deeply serious, at times horrifying, yet also funny, poignant, and moving.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Talk at the University of Kent on Brethren

This coming Tuesday, 23 January, I'm giving a talk at the University of Kent about my novel Brethren as part of the creative writing research seminar series. It is at 1600 in Keynes lecture theatre 2. The blurb below contains (at least) one misleading statement, two doctrinal errors and one major heresy. How many can you spot?

My novel Brethren is set in an evangelical church in Liverpool in 1984. It describes a series of encounters with supernatural beings: an angel, a demon, and (in the climactic scene) an avatar of the dead Christ.

My protagonists are fundamentalists, who rely on the Bible alone for their theology and cosmology. In the Bible, angels are the messengers of God. In other words, their bodies are a medium through which messages travel: a communications technology. But angels are also God’s ambassadors. A substitute for Him. A veil over His living presence, which may be removed.

Hence, Christ is a special kind of angel. The word made flesh.

Demons are harder to define, but we know that they pretend to be angels. If Christianity is based on an ethics of substitution—Christ sacrifices Himself for us (in our place), we love our neighbours as ourselves—then demons instead usurp the place of God, which means they also usurp our place. Their aim is not to reveal or redeem the substituted thing, but to replace it.

I’ll use some episodes from Brethren to explore these ideas.

Jonathan Walker is the author of Pistols! Treason! Murder!: The Rise and Fall of a Master Spy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009) and Five Wounds: An Illuminated Novel (Allen & Unwin, 2010). His website is www.jonathanwalkervenice.com

Friday, October 27, 2017

Second Illustration for Brethren


Here is a second illustration by Dan Hallett for my novel Brethren. Below is the script I initially sent to him:

Script for Dan

The second illustration is based on the iconography of the ‘Harrowing of Hell’. This legendary event purports to explain what Christ did between his death and resurrection: he went down into hell, to release the Old Testament patriarchs from limbo, and possibly preach to and rescue other ‘spirits in prison’. It was a popular story in the Middle Ages, via a compilation called The Golden Legend, and / or Latin translations of the original source, the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus (a late-classical fake).

Are you on Pinterest? There are some useful collections of medieval and early-modern visual representations there, e.g.: https://uk.pinterest.com/revjoelle/harrowing-of-hell/?lp=true

There are two basic ways of representing hell in these images: as a devouring mouth, or (seemingly much less common) as a walled city. In the former style, the mouth gapes open, and Christ seems to reach inside and lead people out by the hand. In the latter, he ‘besieges’ the gates of hell, and breaks them down, perhaps by striking them with his staff / ensign (which has the same St George’s Cross as the Agnus Dei).

In the Gospel of Nicodemus, there’s some suggestion Satan lets Christ into hell willingly, thinking Christ is defeated, not realising he’s bringing in a Trojan horse. In ch. 14 of Brethren, Jenny suggests that hell swallows Christ, but then vomits him out, because it can’t keep him down. I can’t find any visual suggestion of this last idea—perhaps because it’s too irreverent—but it echoes the story of Jonah and the whale, which was interpreted as an allegory of Christ’s death, i.e. Jonah in the belly of the whale is Christ in hell.

In keeping with the emphasis on the body in Brethren, we’re going to show hell as a mouth rather than a city. The mouth / face should have horns, and should vaguely (but not explicitly) suggest the head of a weird, demonic bull (because in the book hell is also depicted as the Minotaur / the bull-headed god Moloch). The pic will show a Robert / Everyman figure kneeling inside the mouth, hands clasped in prayer. But he’s not kneeling directly on the red tongue. Instead, he’s on a round, white communion wafer, which sits on top of the tongue. Hell is either about to try to swallow this wafer, or is in the process of vomiting it back out, but in any case, it’s sticking its tongue out, as if at the doctors.

Communion wafers are sometimes embossed with Christian symbols, one of which is the Agnus Dei (the image is also invoked in the words of the mass at the consecration of the host). Our wafer will instead by inscribed with the pattern / shape of the Chartres labyrinth from the first illustration, with Robert positioned at the centre. Not sure what this necessitates regarding the relative scale of Robert / wafer / hellmouth, but see if you can figure it out.

Re: the labyrinth pattern on the wafer. Don’t attempt to draw the path with two separate ‘sides’ enclosing a central space, as in the first illustration. Just do it as a single red line, to make it easier to draw at a smaller scale.

People in hell are always naked, so the only period indicators in medieval illustrations are in the general artistic style for human physiology (medieval faces often look a bit gormless to me)—and haircuts! But since this is (sort of) Robert, who at this point in the story has been hacking his own hair off with a pair of scissors for the past several years, his hair won’t be noticeably 80s in style. He’s also described as wearing dirty jeans in the final couple of chapters, so give him those too, but he’s bare-chested and barefoot. Robert’s ears are described as sticking out like Prince Charles in an early chapter, so give a suggestion of this, but don’t emphasise it too much, because we want to keep the dual significance whereby he stands for Everyman as well as himself (he should seem like a type rather than an individual). He should nonetheless look very much the worse for wear: bony and thin, but also a bit misshapen. He’s approx. 27 years old.

Christ stands outside the hellmouth. He’s carrying an ensign with the same design as the one in the scapegoat picture, and he has a halo. He is wearing a cloak with a shoulder brooch, as he is often represented. However, his body and face appear as that of a skeleton, like those which feature in a Dance of Death. It shouldn’t be a clean skeleton either, but one with tufts of hair, and gobbets of dried flesh and skin. Like these late-15th century examples: https://remedianetwork.files.wordpress.com/2013/01/dance-of-death.png

Skeletons in the Dance of Death sometimes have a jaunty or irreverent or mocking air. We don’t want that. This Christ skeleton should be serene and authoritative. It should also be drawn at a larger scale to Everyman / Robert, and it’s reaching down to offer its free hand for Robert to take.

Around the wafer, the hellmouth is vomiting up a flood of red wine (the blood of Christ, to accompany the body of the host). Perhaps the wafer is even floating on the flood, being carried forward out of the mouth, so the wafer’s like a raft for Robert—if you can make that work.

N. B. No demons in this hell: only the mouth.

I initially thought of having the hellmouth spewing its guts up, so that they flow around Robert and the wafer, and the coils of the guts would suggest (but obviously not directly reproduce) the shapes of the labyrinth, which in the text of Brethren is implicitly compared to both the inside of an ear and the packed cavity of the intestines. In the pic, Robert would then also be at the centre of this alternative labyrinth of guts. I don’t think this will work—it may not be obvious what the spilling guts are, or why they’re there, plus it will make the picture too busy. It’s better to keep the focus on the wafer and wine (the body of Christ inside the body of hell), but I mention it so you’re aware of some of the broader thematic issues, i.e. the association between hell and the (disintegrating, putrefying, turned inside-out) body.


Dan did not draw Christ outside the hellmouth, reaching in to draw Robert / Everyman out. Instead, the dead Christ is inside hell, with His foot on the wafer that represents His resurrected body, which is on its way out of hell. This actually works better thematically.

Looking at the finished illustration, I thought it would not be obvious to the viewer that Robert / Everyman is kneeling on a giant communion wafer, so I added the following clarification to the end of the written text of the novel (the first illustration with the bisected goat is currently placed as a frontispiece, and this one as an endpiece):

Bill Forester once said: we remember a dead Christ, but our communion is with the risen Christ. Robert imagines a communion-wafer boat bobbing out of hell on a tide of wine. Because hell swallowed the dead Christ, but vomited up the risen Christ.

Then Christ swallowed hell.

Thursday, June 22, 2017


Brethren Sample Illustration 

I have nearly finished a new novel, Brethren. Here’s a possible blurb:

1984. The Miners’ Strike. Liverpool win the European Cup, and the Militant-led city council are on a collision course with the Thatcher government.
Robert doesn’t care about any of that. Only how many references to God he can find in the lyrics of U2, and the imminent arrival of evangelist Billy Graham for Mission England.
Oh, yeah. And the visitors from God. If they are from God. The first keeps changing: sometimes it's a giant; sometimes a dwarf. It’s always on the point of turning into something else—and it's changing Robert with it. 
The second visitor is a starved, naked girl. She says Robert knows her—she sacrificed herself for him. Now she wants a sacrifice in return.
Tracey lives next door to Robert; she’s the one who invited him to church camp last summer, where he was born again. She knows there’s something wrong, but she’s got her own questions. What if you’re not like the heroes in the Bible? No visions, no supernatural visitors. How do you make God real in your life then?
Tracey has to make a sacrifice too.

I am now thinking about possible illustrations for this novel. As usual, I am collaborating with Dan Hallett to create a few samples for publishers, who can then decide if this is something they would like to see more of. The picture above is the first such sample. The rest of this post is a simplified account of the creation of this illustration, including: some general notes I wrote for Dan to introduce the novel; a short extract from chapter 15; and a script for this particular illustration.

General Notes for Dan

Brethren is set in evangelical Protestant church (the Brethren are a particularly austere non-conformist group). So my original idea was that its depiction of angels and demons would be rigorously Protestant, and use only Biblical sources. This is important because most of our ideas about demons, and some of those about angels, actually come from the New Testament Apocrypha (i.e. works judged unreliable by the early church) or the similar Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. But Robert’s theories about angels are taken solely from the canonical books of the Bible, which leads him to rather different conclusions to those of Christian traditions informed by these other sources.
However, Brethren is also a horror story: that is, a story in the Gothic tradition, in which the protagonist is haunted by repressed secrets. And one of the ideas behind the Gothic as it emerged in eighteenth-century novels is that England is similarly haunted by its medieval past: that is, by its Catholic past. The ruined monasteries and abbeys and castles that were the settings for Gothic fiction were ruined because of the destruction caused by Henry VIII’s reformation.
So my protagonist tries to construct an austere Protestant system of belief, but he’s haunted by Catholic ideas, which seep into his visions and experiences: e.g. transubstantiation (the idea that the bread and wine somehow become the actual body of Christ during communion), and the Harrowing of Hell (the idea, derived from the so-called Gospel of Nicodemus, that Christ preached to the imprisoned spirits in hell between his death and resurrection). I also draw on late-medieval Catholic sources like morality plays, in which the soul of Everyman was besieged by demons and angels; and medieval characters like Joan of Arc (who was visited by saints and angels).
So I want the images to have a late-medieval, Catholic feel, with a visual style from the 15th and early 16th centuries (i.e. just before the Reformation), but (if and when they include human figures) these will be dressed in 1980s clothes (I have some photos I can supply for reference, but they’re not necessary for this particular illustration). I was thinking of an engraving style, but really, if we’re talking 15th century, woodcut is more appropriate (and will probably be easier to do).
The sample illustration is based on the idea of the scapegoat from Leviticus in the Old Testament, which is discussed in chapter 15 of the novel. The relevant extract is appended below. Robert, the main protagonist, is the only one who can see or hear the ‘girl’, a.k.a. the demon Azazel. His friend Tracey’s there for moral support, as is Jenny, who’s an R.E. teacher with a background in theology. Mark’s an autodidact lay preacher. He’s the one actually performing the exorcism.

Novel Extract

‘My name is Azazel,’ the girl says.
Robert copies her. ‘Az-a-zel.’
‘What does that mean?’ Mark says. ‘Who are you?’
‘Ask Jenny,’ the girl says. ‘She knows.’
‘Jenny knows what it means.’
‘Me? I’m not …’ Everyone looks at her. ‘Fine. It’s from Leviticus. The ritual for the Day of Atonement. It might not even be a name.’
‘It’s my name,’ the girl says.
‘We don’t have theological discussions with demons,’ Mark says. ‘They’ve got nothing to teach us about God.’
Jenny pulls her bag out from under the chair, and gets her Bible out. She places it on her lap. ‘Maybe it’s something Robert needs to tell us.’
Mark says, ‘Well, there’s no harm in reading from God’s Word. But I’m not having a demon explain it to me.’
‘Take your time,’ the girl says. ‘Talk it over.’
‘On the Day of Atonement,’ Jenny says, ‘the High Priest stood before the Ark, in the presence of God. But first he had to make a special sacrifice.’
‘Nothing to do with demons,’ Mark says.
‘So he took two goats, and he cast lots between them.’
‘That’s you and Tracey,’ the girl says to Robert.
‘One goat for God; the other … for Azazel.’
‘It doesn’t say that.’ Mark gives in and goes to get his Bible from the top of the dresser on the other side of the room. He gives the bed a wide berth.
‘You won’t find it in the NIV,’ Jenny says. ‘Or the King James. Or the Living Bible. They all translate it. But they’re guessing, because no-one knows what it means.’
‘I do,’ the girl says.
Jenny says, ‘In Hebrew, it’s something like “taken away”; “removed”.’
‘Exorcised,’ the girl says.
‘In the Greek version of the Old Testament, it’s “a thing that keeps illness away”. Like a charm.’
‘Except not like a charm at all,’ Mark says. ‘Because that would be the occult.’
‘In the Latin Bible, it’s caper emissarius. Messenger goat. Scout, spy.’
‘Angel,’ Robert says.
Jenny flicks through her Bible to Leviticus. ‘In English, it’s usually scapegoat, but Tyndale invented that word in 1530 for his translation, and everyone else copied him. Except the RSV.’ She reads, ‘The goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel.
‘So the High Priest sacrifices one goat; sprinkles its blood in the Holy of Holies. Then he puts his hands on the head of the other, and confesses the sins of the people.’ She reads again. ‘The goat shall bear all their iniquities upon him to a solitary land. To Azazel. Which could just be a place in the desert. Or a demon who lives there.’
‘Both,’ the girl says.
‘Jesus,’ Mark says. ‘He’s the scapegoat.’
‘But they don’t kill the scapegoat,’ Tracey says. She hooks her feet around the front legs of her chair and looks down again.
‘Right,’ Jenny says. ‘Literally, “the goat who escapes”. Because it doesn’t matter what happens to it, after they send it away.’
‘One for God,’ the girl says, ‘one for me. But the one for God dies; and the one for me lives.’
Robert doesn’t believe her. ‘Maybe Azazel kills the scapegoat.’
‘Jesus is the scapegoat,’ Mark says. ‘And He wasn’t sacrificed to a demon.’
Jenny closes her Bible, but keeps her finger inside it to mark her place. ‘Why Azazel, Robert?’ she says, as if he chose the name. ‘Did you hear it in a sermon?’
Robert makes his hands into fists. ‘No.’
‘In the desert, outside the camp.’ Jenny taps her Bible against her knee. ‘The Greek word for hell is Gehenna. Name of a place outside Jerusalem where people sacrificed their children.’
‘Maybe Abraham went there to kill Isaac,’ the girl says, drawing patterns on the quilt with her finger.
‘In Jesus’ day, it was abandoned, cursed. A rubbish dump.’
‘So Azazel is hell?’ Robert says, thinking of Jesus in the wilderness, tempted by Satan. Maybe that was Gehenna too.
‘I don’t know.’
‘If Azazel eats the goat, does that mean it’s eating sin?’
‘What else would a demon eat?’ Mark says.
Jenny says, ‘In medieval paintings, the entrance to hell is a mouth. So when Jesus dies, it tries to eat Him. But He’s too pure; it can’t digest Him. So it spits Him out.’
‘Does Azazel spit the scapegoat out?’ Robert asks.
The girl burps.
‘We don’t need to know this,’ Mark says. ‘It’s not relevant.’
Jenny says, ‘Christ bears the sins of the world, but He’s still pure. He takes the penalty, but not the guilt.’
The girl burps again, and says, ‘His flavour doesn’t change. He still tastes the same.’
‘For the scapegoat, it’s more like the other way round. It takes the guilt, but not the penalty.’
‘You take the penalty; Tracey takes the guilt,’ the girl says to Robert. ‘Or the other way round. It’s up to you.’
‘I don’t want it to be up to me.’
‘Robert,’ Mark says, ‘stop talking to it.’
‘But it is up to you,’ the girl says. ‘So who do you want to be? The goat for God; or the goat for Azazel?’

Script for Dan

A really boring illustration of these ideas would be a picture of two goats: maybe one black, and one white. So I thought, what if it’s not two goats? What if it’s half a goat? This ties in to another famous Biblical story about King Solomon, who decided to cut a baby in half to find out which of two women was the mother: she was the one willing to give the baby away rather than see it harmed. In the context of the novel, depicting the goat cut in half could suggest that choice is painful, disruptive, and reveals secrets (the inside of the goat). It always involves violence and the renunciation of possibilities (by choosing one thing, by definition you exclude another).
I started off by thinking of Damien Hirst’s Mother and Child, but if you look at the cross-sectioned cow in that, its interior just seems a mess. It’s difficult to make out the shapes of internal organs, etc. So we want a goat cut in half, but rendered somewhat non-realistically, more like the ‘self-dissecting man’ from the anatomy treatises of Vesalius, who displays all his internal organs, etc. In fact, the high priest often had to separate individual organs as part of the different Old Testament sacrificial rites.
So: a cross-sectioned black goat, with a (probably simplified and stylised) set of visible internal organs.
The idea that the scapegoat is Christ also made me think of the image of the Agnus Dei, the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world, which is shown with a halo, carrying a flag with a Saint George’s Cross. So our goat will similarly have a halo and flag. It’s both the Lamb of God and the scapegoat. But a goat (particularly a black goat) is normally a Satanic symbol, so it’s also both Christ and the devil.
The Hirst cows look very odd with only two legs, and similarly I suspect it will be difficult to render a convincing two-legged goat. This is something you’ll have to figure out. I guess the Hirst one is neither sitting nor standing, but suspended, and that’s probably the impression we want too.
Brethren also has several allusions to the Minotaur and the labyrinth, which represent the devil and hell in medieval allegory, with Theseus as Christ, penetrating the labyrinth to kill the devil. So one final layer is to have a red maze in the background behind the goat. This maze begins / comes out / is analogous with the spaces between the goat’s various internal organs, i.e. the organs sit on a red background inside the goat, where they block out most of that background, reducing the visible part of the background to a series of lines, whose shapes resemble those of a maze / labyrinth. A drop / line of blood trickles out of the goat and down onto the background of the page, where it begins another, similar path through a larger maze / labyrinth. (N. B. For reference, there’s a labyrinth filled by an advancing rivulet of blood in the first Hellboy film.)
The blood coming out of the goat is therefore a trickling red thread like the thread Ariadne gives to Theseus in the minotaur's labyrinth. So there's a sense in which we should be able to see the blood flow as reversible: we should be able to follow its thread from the outside inwards, as well as from the centre out.
Mazes / labyrinths are common elements in the floor decorations of medieval cathedrals, where they represent the idea of pilgrimage. Here’s the one from Chartres: http://www.luc.edu/medieval/labyrinths/chartres.shtml In this context, it's Jerusalem at the centre of the labyrinth, not the devil. This alternative, positive meaning ties in with the goat / lamb doubling / superimposition.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

The Uncanny Double and Photography

We should picture the instrument which carries out our mental functions as resembling a compound microscope, or a photographic apparatus, or something of the kind. On that basis, psychical locality will correspond to a place inside the apparatus at which one of the preliminary stages of an image comes into being. 
Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams 

In his essay on the uncanny, Freud famously analyses ‘The Sandman’, a tale by E. T. A. Hoffman named after a mythical figure who steals children’s eyes. In the story, the character who represents the Sandman has two identities: Coppola and Coppelius. In the former guise, he’s an optician, who also makes eyes for automata; in the latter, an alchemist. In Italian, coppo means ‘eye-socket’, while coppella means ‘assay-crucible’: a white-hot orifice, overflowing with molten light.

Self-knowledge is a prize I pursue through a labyrinth, towards its centre, where I wait for myself. I’m both Oedipus and the sphinx; Theseus and the minotaur. But who lays out the labyrinth? Who carries out the act of repression that banishes an idea to its underworld? In other words, who maps the boundary between the conscious and the unconscious? He’s a censor who controls access to consciousness. He’s an invisible homunculus who watches a screen inside my head at which one of the preliminary stages of an image comes into being. He’s my double, who, in the essay on the uncanny, troubles Freud in the form of mannequins and automata, and is initially identified as an avatar of the id: primordial narcissism, which seeks, in duplication, a defence against annihilation.

As is often the way with Freudian concepts, and the effect is especially appropriate here, the double also stands for its opposite (just as unheimlich may also mean heimlich): having once been an assurance of immortality, it becomes the uncanny harbinger of death. In this guise, it doesn’t affirm my existence; it usurps my place. And is thereby revealed as an avatar of the superego, which performs the function of self-observation and self-criticism, and which In the pathological case of delusions of observation becomes isolated, split off from the ego, and discernible to the clinician.

The double is the child of both Coppelius and Coppola: alchemy and optics. He’s my shadow, and my reflection. That is to say, the double is the child of photography, which uses alchemy and optics to combine shadows and reflections. I summon myself with my image.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Jon's Notebook

My photography project 'Developing Writers' shows the subjects with their notebooks. Here's a page from my notes relating to the printing of the portraits and accompanying images:

Saturday, July 19, 2014

The Photographer's Body

Stephen Shore: I was thinking of how I would approach the issue of embodiment in photographic terms, and that is if you become aware of yourself as a physical object in space, as though you were a dancer moving through the space of a room, your perception changes, your perception of space changes, your perception of time changes, and to the degree that that perceptual change is visual, it could be communicated in a photograph. So the sense of space is often the easiest of these subtler qualities to talk about, but if your physical awareness of yourself changes your perception of space, if you are a photographer that has had a lot of experience, a practiced photographer who has control of the medium, the picture you take can communicate that.

Michael Fried: Yes. What struck me in [your] landscape photos .... is that I felt something intensely empathic about, for example, the way they depicted the unevenness of the ground. And about the way in which they treated the whole question of relative distance. It had to be read. I mean I was keenly aware of the visual work I had to do to make my way imaginatively through the photos, to figure out distances, to read scale relations. Let's say there is something at a certain distance, it might be a big rock or it might be a smaller one. Everything depends on whether it is a big rock at 800 yards or a small rock at 75 yards, and those photographs don't immediately deliver that information. They make you work for it, and I came to feel that the labor of construal they forced me to do was implicitly physical, if you see what I mean. It was more than just mental, it was equivalent to imagining myself having to physically negotiate that space. So they were for me extremely interesting photos precisely with respect to the issue of bodiliness and empathy. Also, they made me register the unevenness of the ground in a more than strictly visual way -- the way I would have done had I been walking on it, climbing that slope, or coming back down. 

From an interview in the recent Phaidon volume on Stephen Shore

Monday, July 7, 2014

Street Level Photoworks

This is where I am currently developing my negatives:


I was really pleased to discover such a great public darkroom in Glasgow.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

New Photography Project

I am currently working on a new photography project: my first using a large-format camera since 2005. It depicts Glasgow University creative writing students with their notebooks, in the setting of the university’s Hunterian Gallery. I wanted to use a large-format camera in order to retain resolution in the text on the notebook pages, which occupy a relatively small area in the composition, but are its literal point of focus. The theme is of ‘Developing Writers’, and it seemed appropriate to use analogue technology to depict the similarly analogue character of handwritten notebooks by writers in the process of revising themselves as well as their final portfolio submissions.

 I found this project very challenging on a technical level, for reasons that would not be appropriate to explain at length in a general discussion of the images, but which I’d like to review here, if only for my own satisfaction.

 First of all, I was out of practice with the large-format camera. That’s like being out of practice at running: it takes time to recondition your body to work within the machine's protocol. Secondly, I have never developed my own negatives before. I’ve always made my own prints in a wet darkroom, but for previous projects I shot away from home, and I had the negatives developed by someone else. This wasn't really an option here in Glasgow, and it took me quite a while to get the hang of this part of the process. Numerous fogged or stained films bear witness to my difficulties. Thirdly, the light levels in the Hunterian are low, and the light is also very flat. Using the slow lenses of a large-format camera, the best aperture / shutter speed combination I could get was f8 and 1/15 of a second, even on a 400ASA film pushed one stop to 800. That’s very slow for a portrait, and even at f8, the depth-of-field on a 210mm lens was often only a few centimetres.

I focussed on the handwriting on the notebook pages, but I often couldn’t see clearly enough on the ground-glass screen to get critical focus, or alternatively the sitter moved a few centimetres before exposure, or the paper shifted very slightly during the exposure (sometimes it was 1/8 of a second; occasionally 1/30). Any of these variations was enough to fuzz out the letter shapes on the notebook page, and the human eye has no tolerance for fuzzy typography. Whereas a face can be slightly out of focus and still seem natural, any loss of sharpness in written letters looks ‘wrong’.

In addition to this, the resolving power of my 210mm portrait lens is not as great as I would like. My 90mm wide-angle has much superior optics, but isn’t great for portraiture. I also used a Fuji 6 x 9 as a backup camera, which does have a great lens, and a convenient rangefinder focussing mechanism. I sometimes found that the resolution on the notebook pages was better on the smaller negative of the 6 x 9 than on a large-format negative from the 210mm.

These are all technical problems, but, even assuming that I managed to resolve them all, which I did on maybe one in three negatives, that simply established the preconditions for a successful portrait. Success depends on capturing an interesting psychological truth or moment from the sitter, and I am a very poor director of people.

 I was helped in this by the presence of Katy Hastie during most of the sessions. During the set-up, she talked to sitters about her side of the project, which involves a questionnaire and discussion of creative-writing pedagogy.

 I would set up the camera to determine the edges of the frame, and then place the sitter within that space. Katy compared the second phase to being at the opticians (‘Left a half-step, right a quarter step, notebook up ten centimetres, face turned slightly to your left; now hold that while I put the darkslide in the camera back’). Of course, from my point-of-view all those directions had to be given while viewing the image upside-down and back-to-front.

The really crucial elements in a portrait are facial expression and body language, and the sitter had to discover those while trapped in the vice of the technical limitations.

I expect to get 8-10 successful photographs from about 75 sheets of large-format film and 30 or so rolls of 6 x 9 film. That failure rate is more or less consistent with previous projects. Since I’m not a professional photographer, the only edge I have is in my willingness to edit ruthlessly.

Samples to follow on Flickr.

Friday, February 7, 2014

'Available' by The National

From their album Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers

Sunday, September 8, 2013

'Like a Rolling Stone' by Bob Dylan

Heckler: Judas! 
Bob Dylan: I don’t believe you. You’re a liar. [Aside to The Band:] Play it fucking loud! 
Manchester Free Trade Hall, 1966 

In 1977, Robbie Robertson and Martin Scorsese were inseparable. 'I had always been a film buff, and [Scorsese] was a music buff', Robertson recalls. 'When I moved in into the house I brought these huge studio speakers into the living room, and on the other side of the house he turned a bedroom into a screening room. The screen was a whole bedroom wall'. The two men lived in a nocturnal world of parties and cocaine binges, editing The Last Waltz as other priorities allowed, which may explain why the film wasn’t ready for release until early 1978.

On 26 November 1976, the day after The Last Waltz concert took place, the Sex Pistols released their debut single, Anarchy In The UK. In January 1978, the group played their last disastrous gig at San Francisco’s Winterland – the same venue that had hosted The Last Waltz just over a year before. Thus the film’s period of gestation coincided precisely with the rise and fall of the first wave of British punk. Robertson and Scorsese, holed up in their air-conditioned Hollywood bachelor pad, and deprived of all sensory input except an endless succession of old films and albums on looped playback, were probably unaware of this, but the Pistols appropriated and inverted the same ‘end-of-an-era’ rhetoric that underpins The Last Waltz for their own purposes when they declared 1976 to be Year Zero in the history of popular music. It suited both camps to forget that Bob Dylan had already invented punk ten years earlier.

Witness the gig of 17 May 1966 at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, during which Dylan was backed by the future members of The Band. Nothing the Pistols ever recorded matches the savagery with which Dylan attacks the complacency of his own constituency that night; nor did Dylan ever again betray the kind of vulnerability that underlies the violence of his response to the – undoubtedly sincere – cry of ‘Judas!’, which leads inevitably into the final song, Like A Rolling Stone. The lyrics, viewed in the retrospective light of that agonised cry, sound like a pre-emptive series of counter-accusations, while the punchline of the chorus is equal parts identification and vilification; which is to say, it’s an attempt to marshal the creative potential of self-disgust, an attempt that’s only possible because it’s unclear to whom the question is addressed or even whether it’s sincere or rhetorical – unlike the unscripted exchange that opens the song, where the battle lines are very clearly drawn.

The Band weren’t The Band in 1966 of course. Not just because Levon Helm had temporarily absconded, unable to bear the heckling on the American leg of the tour, but also because Dylan doesn’t acknowledge their existence as a unit. In the footage included in Scorsese’s 2005 documentary, No Direction Home, Robertson is frequently visible, as inseparable from Dylan in 1966 as he was from Scorsese in 1977, the chosen confidante whose designated role is to echo Dylan’s self-image back at him. But Rick Danko, Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson barely seem to exist, at least offstage. In concert it’s a different story, but still, the only voice heard from the stage is Dylan’s. Harmonies are strictly surplus to requirements in 1966, so Danko and Manuel literally have no voice, and Robertson isn’t yet so bold as to dare to mouth the words along.

Ten years after Dylan appeared at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, on 4 June 1976, the Sex Pistols played the same venue – although they only merited the ‘B’ stage, the so-called ‘Lesser Free Trade Hall’ upstairs. It was their first significant gig outside London, and was sparsely attended. They appeared again on 20 July, when word of mouth from the first show brought in a much larger audience, and when they performed Anarchy In The UK in public for the first time.

In 1966, the walkouts, boos and slow handclaps were in part arranged in advance, orchestrated by the commissars of the folk clubs, whose understanding of the significance of ‘their’ music was entirely in thrall to hard-left politics. According to the party line, Dylan had prostituted himself by turning his songs into commodities. In retrospect, the opposite argument seems more convincing: that preconceived audience expectations had fetishised Dylan, who was understandably unwilling to accept this state of affairs. How appropriate then that the most succinct dramatisation of this manufactured conflict took place in a venue called the Free Trade Hall.

In 1976, by contrast, the audience at the two Sex Pistols shows had no shared musical tradition and no idea of what to expect, but their response to a group that openly embraced the entrepreneurial spirit was one of ecstatic (self-)affirmation. Legend has it that everyone in the audience formed a band.

'Play it fucking loud!'

This is the only moment of unmediated communication in the Manchester version of Like A Rolling Stone, the only moment that leaves no room for misunderstanding or contradiction. It’s both an imperative and an affirmation. There’s no object, no subject, and therefore no gender: just a lightning bolt of energy that short-circuits all the normal paths of communication, erasing the distinction between monologue and dialogue; between question and answer.

'How does it feel?'

Sunday, September 1, 2013

'Don't Do It' by The Band

They dove for this song. They grabbed it. They took it as a piece of rhythm, which is what white rock and roll bands have always done with rhythm and blues. They didn’t go for the soul of it – maybe because it wasn’t accessible to them, maybe because it wasn’t interesting to them. There was something in the rhythm that begged for more, that begged for speed, that begged for hardness, for harshness. It seems as if the entire performance is simply a dare: the various people in The Band daring each other to play harder than they’ve ever played before. And what’s most amazing is that they’re battering at each other, they’re throwing challenges at each other. That’s what’s going on in the rhythm. And then at the very end – I guess you could call it a guitar solo – Robbie Robertson simply cuts out on guitar. But he cuts out like somebody gunning a car out of town, as if he’s never going to look back at that place ever again. It’s an absolute escape, and it’s something to hear somebody leap right out of the song, the rest of The Band trying to keep up with him, almost as if to grab his legs as he makes it out the door – and failing. 
Greil Marcus

[The Band’s private studio in Malibu] had once been a high-class bordello. There were still mirrored walls in the bedrooms, and the corridors were lined with crushed-velvet wallpaper.
Barney Hoskyns


It’s not the first audible, enunciated word in the film, since it’s preceded by a babble of production noise that concludes with the phrase ‘Same slate, still running’, reminding us that what we’re seeing is an artefact, whose production is dependent on the cooperation of a group of invisible artisans. But 'Cutthroat' is the first word that’s clearly directed at us, the audience, and the first spoken by a protagonist. An odd opening for a film intended as a monument to the history of a community.

‘Okay Rick. What’s the game?’

The speaker is off-camera, but the voice is clearly recognisable as that of director Martin Scorsese. When this scene was shot, in early 1977, Scorsese had already made a number of cameo appearances in his own films – for example, as a brothel client in 1972’s Boxcar Bertha – but most viewers would know the voice from a scene in the recently-released Taxi Driver, in which Scorsese delivers a monologue in the role of a jealous passenger spying on his wife from the back of Travis Bickle’s cab. Travis watches him via the rear-view mirror, without turning around or responding directly, so it’s a peculiar kind of monologue; that is, it’s a monologue that aspires to be a dialogue – whether with Travis or with the absent woman is unclear – but in any case it fails to hit its target. As such it anticipates the film’s most famous scene, in which Travis repetitively challenges his own dumb, uncomprehending reflection.


Rick Danko, bass player and one of the three vocalists in The Band, answers Scorsese’s current (and seemingly innocuous) question. Danko is standing over a pool table with a racked set of balls.

‘What’s the object of it?’, Scorsese asks, again from off-screen.

‘The object is to keep your balls on the table and knock everybody else’s off’.

Danko breaks. He pots a number of balls with consecutive shots, as other group members watch passively from the edge of the frame. Is anyone else even playing? The dry smack of the impacts bleeds over into the warmer noise of audience applause, introducing the next shot, which is of The Band walking back onstage to perform what will be their final encore in their final concert in their original line-up, a momentous occasion recorded for posterity by Scorsese in this film: The Last Waltz.

The song The Band launch into is Don’t Do It. On this occasion, Danko sings lead, although that’s not always the case. The members of The Band are comfortable with each other in this way. They swap instruments as well as vocals: Danko changes bass for violin; Levon Helm changes drums for bass; Richard Manuel changes keyboards for drums; Garth Hudson changes organ for saxophone. They swap groupies too. On their 1974 tour with Bob Dylan, roadies take Polaroids of the available women at each date: a rotating menu of options.

There are three vocalists in The Band, but guitarist Robbie Robertson – the only group member who only plays one instrument – isn’t one of them. Nonetheless, he appears to sing along enthusiastically to every song in The Last Waltz, although his contributions are inaudible. His silent mouthing is significant, however, because the subtext of the film is Robertson’s claim to ownership over The Band’s legacy and back catalogue as the group’s main credited songwriter. It’s Robertson’s decision to dissolve the community of The Band, which (in his opinion) can’t continue to exist without him – a claim subsequently contested by the other four members, who recommenced touring and recording in the 1980s. So this final onstage show of solidarity masks profound inner tensions, and Robertson’s claim to leadership is based upon the nihilistic premise that the man in charge is the one with the key to initiate the self-destruct sequence.

Don’t Do It.

Again, an odd way to start (in fact, to end) a celebration: with a denial rather than an affirmation, with a deluded plea from a narrator in a pitiable state. But Danko doesn’t sing the words like a defeated, bitter man. He sings like he’s the sexiest motherfucker on earth, and he’s crowing in triumph. Moreover, he skips half the words, as if he’s in a goddamn hurry to get to the end. Probably he is. After all, it’s after two in the morning, and The Band have been playing for hours by this point in the filming of The Last Waltz. But there’s also a sense in which the tone of the performance deliberately nullifies the sense of the words, which speak of enthrallment even as the omissions and the acceleration send a different message: one of barely-veiled contempt for the addressee, who is revealed as the victim of an elaborate joke. She’s not a person. She’s a pretext for men to tell each other stories about what it means to be a man.

This, then, is the ‘official’ reading of the song in the film: In The Band’s world, no man is ever helpless before a woman. In The Band’s world it’s always the woman who says, 'My biggest mistake was loving you too much'. In The Band’s world, male sexuality is empowered by male solidarity.

I don’t live in The Band’s world.

Friday, August 23, 2013

'Diane Arbus' by Diane Arbus

Diane Arbus is one of the most influential monographs in the history of photography. Since it was first published in 1972, a year after Arbus’ untimely death, it has continued to provoke strong reactions in viewers, who see contradictory meanings in Arbus’ confrontational pictures of teenagers, outsiders, freaks, nudists and psychiatric inmates. Compassion, curiosity, openness to other ways of being; cruelty, prurience, voyeurism: even Arbus herself was not entirely certain which category her work falls into.

Arbus never published a book in her lifetime – her biggest exposure was in 1967 as one of the three featured photographers in the New Documents exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (with Garry Winogrand and Lee Friedlander). Diane Arbus is not, then, strictly speaking a 'self-titled' book, because it was edited after her death by her friend, the painter Marvin Israel, and her daughter, Doon Arbus. It features eighty photographs – a small selection of those available in Arbus’ archive. They date from 1962-71, the last decade of Arbus’ life - her forties, more or less. It’s a masterpiece of editing, cut to the bone. Every image is remarkable, though some are more remarkable than others. The sequence jumps around chronologically, except at the very end where there is a small group of consecutive images all dating from 1971, depicting residents at a psychiatric institution.

Arbus' estate holders have been criticised for not allowing wider access to her work or archives, but in a sense the posthumous success of Diane Arbus reveals the effectiveness of their strategy. And, since Arbus herself has no need to keep churning out material to service an ongoing career, why not leave a single, impactful monograph as a definitive statement? (In fact, there have been several other volumes printed recently – a set of the 1971 photographs, a compilation of magazine work from the early 60s, and the catalogue for a recent retrospective; but the first cut is still the deepest.) Thinking of the posthumous creation of this unique monograph reminds me of the relationship between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish - perhaps Arbus might not recognise herself in the book that bears her name.

Except that the voice of the photographs is there in the written preface too. Informal, ironic, intellectually inquisitive, but impatient of theory and abstractions. The preface is full of quotable aphorisms, which speak powerfully of Arbus' aesthetic:

Our whole guise is like giving a sign to the world to think of us in a certain way but there’s a point between what you want people to know about you and what you can’t help people knowing about you.

It’s impossible to get out of your skin into somebody else’s.

A whore I knew once showed me a photo album of Instamatic colour pictures she’d taken of guys she’d picked up. I don’t mean kissing ones. Just guys sitting on beds in hotel rooms. I remember one of a man in a bra. He was just an ordinary, milktoast sort of man, and he had just tried on a bra. Like anybody would try on a bra, like anybody would try on what the other person had that he didn’t have. It was heartbreaking. It was really a beautiful photograph.

These are all Arbus’ words, but none of them were written by her. Instead, it's a collage transcribed from excerpts of taped interviews. So, in fact, the preface is a masterpiece of editing too.

Reviewing Diane Arbus, I now see that the voice I’ve been trying to capture in the photography chapters of Reciprocity Failure is Arbus' voice from the preface.