Further dispatches from Planet Gaudí

May 28, 2015 § Leave a comment

Casa Mila 1

This is the second roll of film I shot in Barcelona, on the roof of the Casa Mila. Unlike the Parc Guëll, black and white felt like a more logical choice to capture the marvellous otherworldliness of the chimneyscape.

Casa Mila 2

Casa Mila 3

Casa Mila 4

(Fun bit of trivia – the shiny black bits atop the group of chimneys in the centre are shards of cava bottles.)

Casa Mila 5

Casa Mila 6

Casa Mila 7

Casa Mila 8

Casa Mila 9

Casa Mila 10

Casa Mila 11

Casa Mila 12

Yes, you can look down or to the side at any time and see Barcelona spread out reassuringly before you. But it still feels like being on another planet…

(Technical specs: Diana F+ camera, Lady Grey 400 black and white film, 38mm super-wide angle lens)

In a minor key (Parc Guëll in black and white)

May 13, 2015 § 1 Comment

Parc Guell 1

I went to Barcelona over Easter (how long ago it seems already!) and took my Diana with me… along with two rolls of black and white film. It seemed a bit perverse to even consider shooting Gaudi’s architecture in monochrome, but I was curious to see what might happen.

The first roll I shot at the Parc Guëll, but the weather – and time – weren’t on my side. The last time I visited Barcelona, fifteen years ago, you could just waltz into the park whenever you wanted… since then they’ve introduced timed tickets, and we showed up mid-afternoon to find that the next available tickets were for 7 pm. So by the time we finally entered the park, the light was soft and diffuse, that magic hour when shadows seem to disappear.

So here’s the Parc Guëll not as it’s normally seen (and photographed), as a riot of colour and sunshine – but black and white, in a minor key.

Parc Guell 2

Parc Guell 3

Parc Guell 4

Parc Guell 5

Parc Guell 6

Parc Guell 7

(Technical specs: Diana F+ camera, Lady Grey 400 black and white film, 38mm super-wide angle lens)

A corner of Paris that is forever Poland

April 21, 2015 § 2 Comments

Bibliothèque Polonaise de Paris

Bibliothèque Polonaise de Paris

I’ve now been to Paris so many times that I’ve stopped counting (please, no sympathy), and one of the less desirable effects of this familiarity is that I have a tendency to fall into a bit of a rut. It’s so tempting to keep returning to my favourite places, which in itself isn’t a bad thing but means that I risk missing out on what I’ve yet to discover (and despite my feeling that I know Paris like the back of my hand, I know there’s a lot more). So for the last several years, every time I go to Paris I make a point of doing or seeing one thing I’ve never done or seen before.

Years ago, when I was a Paris neophyte, I remember reading the Rough Guide’s description of the Ile Saint-Louis as (I’m paraphrasing here) ‘the only corner of Paris without a museum, unless you count a very small museum devoted to the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz which is rarely ever open.’ I wasn’t remotely tempted at the time (although I was mildly intrigued as to why the museum existed in the first place, and in that particular location), but last month, three months before my first ever trip to Poland (of which more in June!), I got to thinking about it again and thought well, why not?

It turns out that the Musée Adam Mickiewicz is one of three miniature museums housed in the Bibliothèque Polonaise de Paris. The other two are devoted to Frédéric Chopin (unsurprisingly) and the painter and sculptor Bolesław Biegas (whom I knew only from a single sculpture in the Musée d’Orsay). And the Rough Guide hadn’t been kidding about the opening hours (or the lack thereof) – it is, annoyingly, only open afternoons, Tuesday-Friday.

Whether because of the obscurity of the subject or the location or the abbreviated hours, I found myself in an unheard-of position one Friday several weeks ago – I was the only visitor. To all three museums. The young woman who sold me a ticket looked so discomfited to see an actual visitor that I couldn’t help but feel sorry for her. (We had a very stilted exchange in French until I figured out that she was Canadian and she realised I was American and a bit of awkwardness was averted.)

Salon Chopin

Salon Chopin

The first of the three museums I visited was the one dedicated to Chopin. It’s a single room filled with prints, photographs, medals and sculptures of the man himself (plus his death mask and, more intriguing to me, a life cast of his hands – I was surprised to discover that they were scarcely larger than mine)… and the Pleyel piano given to him by a generous patron which he used for much of his time in Paris. There was a stereo in the corner playing (what else?) one of his nocturnes. I could very happily have stayed there with his piano and his music and not seen anything else, but I knew I had two more museums ahead.

Musée Adam Mickiewicz

Musée Adam Mickiewicz

I must admit that before I set foot in the museum, my knowledge of Adam Mickiewicz was minuscule. It could be summed up as follows:

1. He was Poland’s leading Romantic poet.

2. His masterpiece was Pan Tadeusz, an epic poem that is required reading in Polish schools and which starts with the words ‘O Lithuania!’ (which tells you all you need to know about how many times Poland’s boundaries got redrawn and/or erased over the 123 years during which it technically ceased to exist).

3. There is a big monument to him on the Rynek in Krakow.

4. He had quite possibly the best hair of any Romantic poet. Ever. (Lord Byron, eat your heart out.)

Adam Mickiewicz

I’m glad I visited the museum because I found out what a fascinating and complex character he was – poet, literature professor (at the Collège de France), librarian (at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal where I spent so many hours as a PhD student, with no idea whatsoever of his presence), political agitator (hence more than 20 years as an exile in Paris, along with many other Polish intellectuals), diplomat… I came out of it wanting to know more about him, but more to the point, wanting to read some of his poetry. (If anyone can recommend a good translation, please do!) The only caveat – the wall texts were in Polish and French, no English… so if you have neither language, enlightenment will elude you.

Musée Boleslaw Biegas

Musée Boleslaw Biegas

As for the Musée Bolesław Biegas… the only thing I can reasonably say is that entering this small and overcrowded room full of sphinxes, vampires, crucified Christs and multicoloured femmes fatales is like entering the Twilight Zone. Only weirder. He is easily one of the most bizarre artists I’ve ever encountered (Surrealist seems too mild a label) – bizarre and… well… not very good. I was astonished to learn that at one time his sculptures commanded higher prices than those of Rodin (!) although I assume that was for a brief moment only. I was also rather saddened by the thought that anyone without prior knowledge of 19th-century Polish art who visits the museum might emerge with a very skewed view of it – which is such a shame when you consider how much more talented so many of his contemporaries were (Mehoffer, Wyspiański, Pankiewicz, Malczewski… yes, I realise they’re not exactly household names but all the same!). That said, if my lonely experience was at all typical, perhaps not very many people ever discover Biegas in the first place.

And so I eventually emerged from the Bibliothèque Polonaise feeling happily melancholy (Chopin), enlightened (Mickiewicz) and a bit freaked out (Biegas). I can’t honestly say it’s a must-see for a first-time visitor to Paris (or someone without a decent reading knowledge of French or Polish), but for a repeat visitor, it was an interesting discovery – and for me, a nice prelude to my trip to Krakow. On which, more later…

Spring blossom

April 19, 2015 § Leave a comment

Cherry blossom 1

This weekend was the first in six (!) that I spent in London, so naturally I went to Kew to see the spring blossom. The cherries were at their best (thanks Fran!) and I spent some happy hours enjoying them with my eyes and camera.

Cherry blossom 2

Cherry blossom 3Cherry blossom 4

However, I must confess I am not a wholehearted fan of cherry blossom. For one simple reason: they have a serious flaw.

No scent.

So as much as I love the way they look – the big fluffy pink ones like the petticoats of ladies in a painting by Fragonard, the white ones like banks of cloud – there’s another spring blossom that holds first place in my heart…

apple blossom

Apple blossom.

They might not be as showy, but the scent is quite possibly my favourite on the face of the earth – sweet and gentle, fragile and elusive, only present for a few short weeks every spring. Also, less obviously, the subject of a passage of Anne of Avonlea that has stuck in my mind ever since I read it more than twenty years ago:

‘I read somewhere once that souls were like flowers,’ said Priscilla.

‘Then your soul is a golden narcissus,’ said Anne, ‘and Diana’s is like a red, red rose. Jane’s is an apple blossom, pink and wholesome and sweet.’

‘And your own is a white violet, with purple streaks in its heart,’ finished Priscilla.

I was always a bit disappointed that it was plain, unimaginative Jane who got assigned the apple blossom. I always felt it would have better suited Anne.

Or me.

Le plat pays qui (n’)est (pas) le mien

March 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

Victor Hugo, Souvenir de Belgique (c. 1852-55) (seen at Talabardon & Gautier's stand, TEFAF, Maastricht and the Salon du Dessin, Paris)

Victor Hugo, Souvenir de Belgique (c. 1852-55) (seen at Talabardon & Gautier’s stand, TEFAF, Maastricht and the Salon du Dessin, Paris)

Another March, another trip to TEFAF and the Salon du Dessin (with a trip to Brussels to visit friends in the middle)… which goes some way to explaining why I’ve been rather silent here of late. So I’ll break the silence with one of my favourite works from both fairs, this extraordinary drawing by Victor Hugo.

Victor Hugo? Yes, he might be better known as the author of Les Misérables and Notre Dame de Paris, but there’s another side to his work, which he kept fairly private during his lifetime – darkly visionary drawings, mostly of mysterious buildings or crumbling ruins looming out of pools of wash and tangled webs of inky lines. Souvenir de Belgique is thought to date from between 1852-55, when he was living in exile on Guernsey, his sojourn in Belgium in the recent but rapidly receding past – a drawing not from life, but from memory and imagination. I’ve spent enough time on trains crossing Belgium over the last few weeks to feel that Hugo innately understood the flatness and bleakness of the landscape, as well as the melancholy and mystery: I have no idea whether Fernand Khnopff knew about this drawing (I’d guess not) but it looks and feels like a precursor to his own weird, misty visions of the Ardennes and of a dead Bruges.

Most of Hugo’s drawings are on a fairly modest scale, but Souvenir de Belgique is more ambitious, nearly a metre across including the frame. And you can’t not include the frame – it’s integral to the drawing. Hugo inscribed the title on it, signed it, and continued the drawing on it in the form of a strange red flower (hard to identify, but I think a poppy is likely, and would tie in nicely with the dreamlike quality of the drawing). But the most extraordinary thing about the frame sadly doesn’t come through in my less-than-wonderful photo.

The frame is made of pine, and it’s beaded with droplets of resin. They are of course long dried and hardened but under the lights on the stand, both in Maastricht and Paris, they still look wet, as if the planks are freshly cut and oozing resin, almost like – dare I say it – blood, or sweat, or tears.

Yes, it sounds a bit grisly, but I don’t imagine Hugo’s choice of wood can have been accidental. It makes the drawing seem alive (and grieving, or wounded, perhaps mortally) in a way no more conventional frame possibly could.

Them bones (St Dunstan in the East, Part 1)

February 28, 2015 § 4 Comments

St Dunstan's 1

I can’t remember where or when I first became aware of St Dunstan in the East, but I must have filed it away in my mind as a place to which I would have to make a pilgrimage with my camera. (After all, anyone with even a passing familiarity with this blog knows how much I love a good ruin.) I knew I wanted to photograph it in winter, when it had lost its lush but temporary mantle of summer greenery and its old bones would be exposed to light and weather.

On a sunny Sunday three weeks ago, I finally made it – and to my dismay, so had about half of camera-toting London. Still, with patience and a bit of cleverness, I managed to capture it empty and quiet, still surprisingly heaped with skeins of vines. And despite the brilliant sunshine, in black and white it emerges surprisingly eerie and melancholy, the skeleton of a lost church adrift in its own dreams.

St Dunstan 2

St Dunstan 3

St Dunstan 4

St Dunstan 5

St Dunstan 6

St Dunstan 7

St Dunstan 8

St Dunstan 9

St Dunstan 10

St Dunstan 11

St Dunstan 12

And why Part 1? I’m planning to go back in high summer – with a roll of colour film, for a completely different side of the place.

(Technical specs: Diana F+ camera, Lady Grey 400 black and white film, standard lens)


January 30, 2015 § Leave a comment

One of the downsides of doing photography the old-fashioned way (film rather than digital) is that not all accidents are happy. Case in point – the other roll I shot over the holidays in California turned out… not quite so well.

On the way back to Sacramento from Sonoma, my mom and I stopped at Di Rosa, an extraordinary contemporary art collection displayed in a corner of the Napa Valley. I was all excited about the photographic possibilities (strange sculptures in a spectacular natural setting – that’s a bit of a no-brainer) but as I shot, and tried to advance the film, I could feel something going badly wrong. It wouldn’t move except under extreme duress. When I finally finished the roll and extracted it from my camera, it wasn’t nearly as tightly wound as it should have been. I crossed my fingers and got it developed anyway.

Anyway, to cut a long story short, only the first few shots didn’t fall victim to over-exposure. I found it wonderfully ironic that the two best shots I salvaged both depicted sculptures made from ruined objects (that most Californian of subjects, a wrecked car, and a pile of broken funerary statues):

Car wreck

Broken statues

Salvage twice over, I guess…

(Technical specs: Diana F+ camera, colour negative 100 film [defective roll], standard lens)


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