On Saturday 14 April, 2007, the sun set over the resplendent fields of a Northumbrian landscape. The master and mistress of the land were not at home. Sir Humphrey was away for the weekend and Lady Humphrey will not stay on her own in the twelfth century castle. Chillingham is reputed to be haunted.
The grace of night was disturbed by the master's son and two grandsons. Mounted on mechanical steeds, they powered their way around an obstacle course acting very much as their great forebears must have done: familial possession of land and land that possesses in return. With all this expansive and expensive land, one imagines there is very little breathing space for poor old ghosts who are obliterated by the 250cc combustion engine of a quad bike.
As the boys raced into the distance, fifty or so cars arrive for a charity fundraising do. Chillingham Castle has long since opened its doors to the paying public. The event this evening is a Fright Night raising money for Diabetes UK. Before a tour of the ground and building and to get the blood sugars active, we were shown a film about the paranormal.
David Wells then took centre stage and stressed the need for individuals to make up their own mind. There is more to heaven and earth, than is dreamt of in our philosophy. Once upon a time, I wanted to believe, but I have long since given up on ghosts. Or have they given up on me?
During the night and early hours of the morning, we flashed our torches across the damp walls and floors and furniture. In total, I attended six vigils. The guides tried their best to summon forth spirits: please, move the curtain; or blow out the candle; or knock; make us a sign that you are here; please, please!
The pleading voice echoed around the room. The room gave nothing back to me.
Do any of you feel cold air currents passing through the dining room?
At the end of our vigil, there was a successful attempt to merge mind with matter. Eight pairs of sweaty palms were placed on a small table. Was this an ancient ghost, not so steady on their feet and needing to use four legs and eight palms as a crutch?
Thousands of photographic images were taken by a third eye bugling to peer into the unknown. Maybe we were too polite and the ghosts got fed up with us "flashing" before taking a photograph in the pitch darkness. "Prepare yourself, I'm going to flash." "Cheese everyone." I cheesily flashed and then watched others as they examined their digital images. Could this be an orb? An imprint or expression of dead souls?
I have to confess. The photographs you now peruse were made by the analogue devil. One who resurrects the dead with chemicals. The only ghosts present were the ones crafted with exposures of more than half a second.
A though-provoking exhibition about the future of Kenyan forests is currently showing at the National Museum in Nairobi. It has been conceived and curated by the renowned film maker Jacob Barua. Let us listen to him as he guides us on a journey through this exhibition which is also an installation and happening.
"Nearly half of this exhibition comprises photography of forests by the late Stan Butrym. He was recognised as one of the first Polish pioneers in the field of championing forests as an source of aesthetic inspiration. He has supremely captured the almost fairytale, eerie and surreal ambience of these Polish forests."
"Poland's forests are majestic and mysterious. The last remaining primeval forest in Europe has survived only in Poland and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site and an incredible 29% of its territory is covered by forests. The oldest documented tree in Poland is 1250 years old. The fauna is equally astounding as it is the only country in Europe with freely roaming bison, lynx, bears, boars, wolves and other animals. Over 500 years ago Polish Kings were among the first in the World to create environmental enclaves, having officially placed many forests under Royal protection."
"However the main message of this show is not so much the factual beauty of Polish forests, but an attempt to provoke Kenyans into loving their own forests. As you walk around the display you will encounter numerous suitcases each with tree seedlings. These are Kenyan indigenous species that are on the verge of extinction. I made the selection by closely consulting with top Kenyan botanists to get this right. Kenya is becoming one big Australian forest. We have decided to opt for species from down under. and no longer plants local ones. There's a widespread belief that Australian trees grow faster and give better yields. The scientists I have interacted with say this is a baseless myth. But then how do you tackle a myth once it grows roots?"
"There are also books on benches as this is meant to be a "Departures Lounge" on an eco journey. I thought in particular Wangari Maathai and Lech Walesa were relevant to the event. Wangari had her head slashed with a machete during her long fight to save Kenyan and world forests. While on the other hand we have an electrician who helped topple a system that didn't care at all for the environment. Here I am showing that whatever station you have in life, you can make a difference to humanity as a single determined individual. "
"Even audio performances are used as impromptu happenings to enhance the entire event. I literally grab visitors with whatever skills or talents they have and invite them to do something that becomes intrinsically a part of the whole. The kids from the Jirani Children's Choir were truly great. They come from a slum called Dandora in Nairobi which has the largest garbage dump in the city and children forage through it. Such kids as those in the choir have been literally plucked out of this humongous festering un-environmental mountain of poverty, through the sheer angelic nature of their voices. Out of the largest garbage mountain in Kenya comes inspiration, beauty and promise."
"The show has also turned out to be a hit with ordinary Kenyans. The Museum is one of the few places working class Kenyans can afford to take their entire family on an outing. Youngsters have given me inspiration. Many have told me or written in the visitor's book that they will now start planting indigenous trees and also tell their teachers that they should do so."
"Our tree species are on a grand Safari; out into the realm of History."
Photography and text kindly reproduced by Jacob Barua.
The exhibition runs from the 21st November 2015 to the 21st December 2015 at the National Museum of Kenya.
I'm plotting an exhibition called Even The Dead Die (working title) that will be shown at Photomonth during October - November, 2014. This will be my first systematic effort at editing 3000 plus photos taken at Kensal Green Cemetery from 1989-2009.
The exhibition will focus on an area of the cemetery that represents the final resting place for material culture. This is a general dumping ground for the ongoing maintenance of the cemetery: stone broken down in preparation for recycling; discarded plastic packaging from flowers; clay, lots of clay; otherworldly microwave, cathode ray tube, burnt-out lorry. They are all temporarily stored here, before making their way into the mother of all land tips.
This project is purely analogue. I have never really taken up the instant fix of digital (wonderful as it is!). Thankfully, I'm quite an organised person. But it does means sifting through dozens of boxes and identifying negatives in both 35 and 120 film formats. The editing process will take several months and I will need to clear a space in the studio for the display of working prints. These will need to be constantly revisited: comparing negative with positive; looking for images that can cluster or alternatively offer points of thematic and iconographic difference.
I obviously want to focus on the dead-end zone, this wasteland within the cemetery. This fits into our cultural attraction for ruined objects and I note that Tate Britain is about to open an exhibition called Ruin Lust.
There is an irony in the way we house our loved ones in a memorial that symbolises the eternity of memory and love. The reality is that marble will weather and decay. There are also those "acts of God"; one of these caused the extensive perimeter wall on the Harrow Road to collapse in 2005 (damaging many burial sites and still being rebuilt as we speak).
Out of the ruins, there is a challenge to create a unique exhibition. One that perhaps reveals the hidden workings of the corporate side of the burial industry. It also will have an ecological subtext. The issue of sustainability is important in death as well as in life. As green burials are becoming more popular, future generations might forsake the trimmings of a traditional burial. Is not dust to dust, the cosmic scheme of things?
I've previously exhibited facets of this project.
At my first solo exhibition, Between Heaven and Earth, in 2002 at the Artists Gallery, I showed an installation piece that represented a newly constructed road in the cemetery. 15 x A1 photos were placed on the floor in the gallery under perspex sheets and visitors were invited to walk across its surface. The programme note read: "Weird and wonderful artefacts from demolished houses were used to form the foundation of the road: a comb, y-front underwear, battery, plughole, etc."
I have also used the cemetery as a source of inspiration for experimental prints in a butterfly series.
In 2005 I took part in a group show called Around a Mile. This was at the Dissenters Chapel which is sited in Kensal Green Cemetery. I exhibited Chasing Butterflies:
"It's not easy to chase a butterfly in the cemetery with an SLR camera and freeze frame that zigzag of a flight pattern. However shooting off a roll of film and finding that not one photo contained a butterfly was a surprise. Butterfingers. This collage of images is an attempt to render that noble futility into an abstract landscape."
For the new exhibition, I hope to commission soundscapes from musicians. This will add a sonic layer to the visuals and enhance the narrative play of slideshows. I first employed this collaborative approach in 2012 for Glasgow and Edinburgh: Built Environment From Gulf War to Harry Potter.
After a hiatus, I'm back in the darkroom, with the lights on and reworking some black and white prints.
I've using the two bath process of potassium ferricyanide and hypo solution. The trade name for the product is Farmers Reducer and it's available from Silverprint in London.
The aim is to brighten over developed prints by adding sparkle and subtle shades of cream.
This technique works best on prints that are not too contrasty and have an even range of tones. The effect is noticeable after 5-8 seconds; this is my average time of use.
Be careful with prints that have pale or under developed areas. Skyline and clouds are liable to disappear off the silver horizon. There is also the risk of staining depending upon how you had previously fixed and washed your print.
If you have multiple prints of an image, then this is a good technique to practice in the light of a darkroom. Keep a master untreated for future reference.
Practice almost makes perfect.
However nothing beats getting the exposure correct in camera. This means registering a good range of black and white tones, the highs and the lows.
Practice can then make perfect.
Plastikos is an entry for Brief Ideas Tap under the theme of Conflict.
The mass media creates an ideal body type and this is expressed in fashion, beauty and the cult of celebrity. It is not surprising that many people feel they do not measure up.
Plastikos (from Ancient Greek, meaning to mould) is a narrative project that explores the cutting edge between bodily dissatisfaction and the promise of “cosmetic” surgery.
Each self-portrait uses the bold, brash colour of a plastic shopping bag or packaging material to define, envelop and over-power the human face. Erotic asphyxiation is one outcome in this conflict between the inner soul and a materialistic society. The rustle of plastic contains both a smile and a scream.
Kindred spirit - Francesca Woodman.
The American photographer, W. Eugene Smith, spent several years documenting the city of Pittsburgh in the mid 1950s. He shot 20,000 negatives, but failed to synthesis his vision into a coherent, digestible form that could be rendered in any magazine, book or exhibition. Retrospectively, we are left with a beguiling set of images that anatomizes a city: heart, lungs and soul.
I have attempted a similar project albeit on a far humbler scale, talent wise. Over a period of four years, I visited and photographed Glasgow and Edinburgh with the aim of peeling back the fabric of its built environment. This was a pre-digital project, trusting my vision to the time-delay qualities of film.
Several years went by as I meditated on the project.
I enjoyed looking at Blurb books covering Glasgow and Edinburgh:
Edinburgh 2009-2011, A Photographic Urban Study by Fotis Milionis
The City Breathes (Tales of Urban Soul Searching) by Neil Boyd
Lines and Curves: A Constructivist View Point by Sefa Ucbas
Edinburgh Police Boxes by Malcolm Irving
In 2012, I finally edited and published a photo book called Glasgow and Edinburgh: Built Environment from Gulf War to Harry Potter, 2003-2007.