Featured

Self-portrait

Welcome, and thank you for stopping. It is very kind of you to do so. There are so many demands on our time and attention so I appreciate you taking the effort to pause here a moment.


My name is Stephen Taylor. I work full time (as an e-learning developer and instructional designer) but in my spare time I take photographs. You can view some of my work on this website. Some of it is also for sale on Alamy and nuMonday, either as digital downloads or physical prints. More of my photographs can be found on Flickr and Instagram as well.

We are always learning (I learnt that in my early days as a trainer) and this blog is a part of my learning process (and possibly yours?). Some of the postings will be on the subject of photography itself, based upon my reading on the subject and viewing other photographers’ works. Other postings will be on my experiences as a photographer seeking to improve my art; some of these will be less about the photographic process and more about the subject itself.

I am sharing them because I hope that people will respond with their own ideas so that together we can learn. I am not an expert in the subject but I am happy to share my thoughts and to have them challenged. I hope that in some respects this blog can become a conversation on the subject of photography.

Ashwell Church

Today I was cycling in the Bedfordshire/Cambridgeshire borders, and visited the church in Ashwell. Services are taking place again now and it was good to hear music drifting across the churchyard as I wandered around.

As usual I was looking for the quiet corners and I found it with this upturned wheelbarrow on a compost heap. It reminded me that there is a cycle of life continuing in this place.

The church at Ashwell has added poignancy in this day and age. It contains some graffiti on one of the walls inside. I was not able to view it today but, from Wikipedia, the text says:

“MCT Expente miseranda ferox, violenta Superest plebs pessima testis, MCCCL”

which translates as:

“1350 Miserable, wild, distracted 1350
The dregs of the mob alone survive to witness”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_St_Mary_the_Virgin,_Ashwell#Ashwell_Graffiti

1350 was in the period when the Black Death swept across Europe. It is a reminder that beneath the seemingly tranquil countryside something darker lurks.

A corner of Ashwell Church in Hertfordshire

Chesil Beach

Many of my photographs are taken along the beautiful Dorset coast and one of the most glorious places to photograph is the Chesil Beach. It’s eighteen miles (twenty-nine kilometres) long and stretches along the Jurassic Coast from the Isle of Portland in the southeast all the way to West Bay further northwest (the latter better known these days as Broadchurch, the television drama series).

I have walked parts of the beach many times, particularly the Portland end, and what has always attracted me are the pebbles. They are worn smooth by the sea and the wind, and sometimes come in beautiful colours. It is said that a sailor landing upon the beach can tell where they are by the size of the pebbles. At the Portland end they are much larger than at West Bay.

These photographs were taken at the Portland end as I trudged along the beach looking down. As you can see I have done a little bit of manipulation to enhance their colours (!).

All the photographs are available in my store on nuMonday as a set of four coasters. Click here to find out how you can buy them.

Self

When you look at yourself in the mirror what do you see?  Perhaps not a great deal; just enough to avoid cutting yourself shaving or smudging your make-up. Next time, take a moment to look a little longer at that face looking back at you, those eyes. Are you seeing yourself as others see you? Or can you see someone else, the person inside you? Sometimes when I find myself staring into the mirror it is almost as if I can see two of me; the person that other people see and the person I think I am.  

Once upon a time we could not know ourselves in this way. We looked through our eyes and we could see various parts of our body but our faces were hidden from us. We might catch a blurred reflection in water or on a burnished surface but it only gave a hint of ourselves. And there were very few means to capture that likeness. It would be a time consuming business to sit for a portrait, a process available only to a wealthy few wishing to make a statement.  

Now, what was once mysterious has become common place. Each morning we stop and look in the mirror to shave, put on makeup, check our hair is okay.  And we all have the means to make our own portraits anytime we like.

How did we travel from an unrecognised self to putting ourselves centre stage? This is a short history of that journey from an imperfect reflection to a multitude of likenesses, from the mystical to the mundane.

Mirrors

… the mirror is a visual bridge between past, present and future.”

Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World, 2015 p38

The earliest mirrors were still water. The first man-made mirrors, 8000 years ago, were polished obsidian, a volcanic stone. Later mirrors were made of polished copper or bronze.  They would have taken time and effort to create and so would presumably have been the preserve of a handful of the wealthy; these objects’ status in society can be seen by their appearance on funerary imagery. There were simpler mirrors which were nothing more than a bowl of water but otherwise the opportunity to observe oneself was limited. In any case, whilst the evidence suggests some early mirrors were of a reasonable quality they still gave limited vision of the observer. For many early people their own reflection would have been an imperfect image.

Despite or because of their imperfections, early mirrors had a role beyond assisting with shaving or putting on make-up. They were seen as reflecting more than just the person’s outer appearance; it was believed that they also could reveal their inner self or soul. That was why it was thought bad luck to break them; you could be damaging your own soul. Some traditions are concerned that a person’s soul upon death or sleeping may become trapped in a mirror – that’s why in some traditions they may be covered during a period of mourning or at night to prevent this.

If a soul could be held within a mirror then the mirror also offered a means of connecting with the dead and, by extension, looking into the past  and the future.  Processes known as  catoptromancy or enoptromancy were used to divine the future. The mirror provided a link between the past, present and future.

Mirrors and our own reflections are more magical than we think.

Portraits

“For most of the modern era, the possibility of seeing an image of oneself was limited to the wealthy and the powerful.”

Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World, 2015 p328

Mirrors give a transient view of ourselves. A portrait captures our likeness forever and this was recognised from antiquity onward.  In ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome wall paintings and statues depicted pharaohs and emperors, often alongside gods, emphasising their high status. The same desire for the reflected divine glory continued into the Christian era. These could be in the form of donor portraits where the artist would insert their client into a biblical scene such as the Nativity or the Crucifixion.

With the decline of overtly religious iconography portraiture was used to emphasise the absolute power of the monarch. Many artists became more than tradesmen, turning into trusted servants of the king. The classic example of the power portrait would have been that of King Henry VIII painted by Hans Holbein.

With the expansion of the middle classes portraiture moved downwards but it was still the preserve of the very wealthy keen to mark their place in society. For the remainder there were very limited means for a likeness of oneself  to capture. They continued to rely upon their reflected image in a mirror.

Self Portraits

“The moment when a man comes to paint himself – he may do it only two or three times in a lifetime, perhaps never – has in the nature of things a special significance.”

Lawrence Gowing, quoted https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/27/self-portrait-culture-history-james-hall-review-profoundly-human

From early on, artists began to appear in their own work. These would be typically religious scenes and the artist would include themselves in a group of people, for example Piero della Francesca added himself as a sleeping Roman soldier in his fresco, Resurrection (1463). This may have been done for practical purposes; the artist was available to act as a subject for his work.  

Gradually the artist began to creep into portraits of others. This is most notable in Las Meninas, (1656) painted by Diego Velázquez where he is seen standing next to his easel painting the picture we are looking at. The ostensible subject of the picture, King Philip IV of Spain, and his wife, Mariana are seen reflected in a mirror at the very back of the picture, apparently posing for the painting Velazquez is working on. They appear to be standing where we as the viewer stand looking at the picture.  Alongside are members of the court and most of these are looking towards the King and Queen, or us.    

The most prolific self-portraitist was probably Rembrandt. There a are probably forty self-portraits attributed to his own hand as well as many sketches and drawings.  Sometimes this was because he was the nearest available model (and cheapest). On other occasions he may have been recording his own expressions for use in later projects. In any case we have a record of his changing appearance throughout his career.  Like many other painters he would have worked in front of a mirror and there are suggestions that he occasionally had to rework his portraits to show him the right way and not as if he were a reflection.

A large number of women artists produced self-portraits. A notable example was Madame Lebrun working in the 18th Century as a portraitist; a self-portrait was one method of showing off her skills to potential clients. It could also be argued it provided with an opportunity to present her own self-image in an era when the image of women was filtered through a masculine perspective. One of her self-portraits includes her daughter; she wanted to show herself in a positive light as an artist (a worker) and a mother.

The photographic portrait

“… our loathsome society rushed , like Narcissus , to contemplate its trivial image on the metallic plate . A form of lunacy , an extraordinary fanaticism , took hold of these new sun worshippers.”

Charles Baudelaire 1859

The invention of photography in the early nineteenth century industrialised the portrait process and began the democratisation of the self-portrait. A French photographer, Andre Disderi, patented the carte de visite, a photograph printed on thin paper and mounted on card. He also came up with the idea of taking eight photographs with a single negative driving down costs further. Sitters would be brought into a naturally lit studio, posed with a few props, and told to hold still for a while as their photograph was taken. Once done, the next in line would be ushered in to undergo the same process.

All this industry met a need – there was a craze to be photographed, to keep a likeness of yourself and your family, or to share them with others.  It has been suggested that this could come from the pleasure we experience when seeing people we recognise. Arguably our very survival is based upon that recognition; as babies we learn to recognise our parents and gain pleasure when we see their faces. It might be the same process runs through the desire to be photographed?

The photographic self-portrait

“I am an African chief, in a western chair with a leopard skin cover, and a bouquet of sunflowers. I am all the African chiefs who have sold their continent to the white man. I am saying: we had our own systems, our own rulers, before you came. It’s about the history of the white man and the black man in Africa.”

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jun/19/photographer-samuel-fosso-best-shot

As with painting, the self-portrait became popular with photography. Early examples included the American photographer, Robert Cornelius, taken in 1839 and the French photographer, Hippolyte Bayard  “Self-portrait of a drowned man” (1839-40). He was the developer of an alternative photographic process that was eclipsed by the daguerreotype. In his self-portrait, he presents himself as a drowned man.

A self-portrait can be empowering; it allows the subject to take control of how they would like to present themselves. This can be particularly relevant for certain groups who have often been the subject but rarely in control of their appearance. Two recent examples of this are Cindy Shermanand Samuel Fosso.

Both photographers have used the genre to subvert how they are often viewed in mainstream society: for example, Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” – a series of self-portraits showing herself as a typical character from  Hollywood Movies, subverting the genre to take control of her own image and that of other women as they have depicted in male dominated movie industry; or Samuel Fosso’s Self-portraits  of himself as a westerner would see an African man.

The selfie

“Because it draws on the long history of the self-portrait, it’s likely that the selfie in one form or another will continue to play a role in shaping how to see people for a long time to come.”

Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World, 2015 p69

That leads us on to the much maligned “selfie”. On the one hand we are all artists now in control of how we portray ourselves. On the other hand our experiences of the world around us can only be meaningful if we have inserted ourselves into it (sometimes inappropriately and occasionally at great risk) and snapped ourselves.

The selfie has become ubiquitous. back in 2016 Google reported that 24 billion selfies were posted to Google Photos. That was one platform four years ago. The number has surely grown by now, along with the expansion of photo sharing apps such as Instagram, Snapchat and more). https://blog.google/products/photos/google-photos-one-year-200-million/  

Research suggests that the bulk of selfies are taken by women (http://selfiecity.net/), they tend to have a very limited lifespan and they are often used as a visual form of communication; the mobile phone created for speech and text is now more frequently used to share images.

This brief history has shown that over the millenia we have moved from the mysterious and barely seen to the mundane and ubiquitous but along the way we have begun to take control of how we portray ourselves. Whilst many people bemoan the rise of the selfie, it should be celebrated as a means of self-portrayal.

A praying angel and a tilting shed

Cycling through the Hertfordshire countryside on my ongoing project to uncover the corners of country churchyards, and I came upon this in Codicote. I loved the juxtaposition of the praying angel and the leaning shed. Curiously, the angel was all on their own, away from the rest of the gravestones.

Objects

The earliest photographs were very often still lives; a collection of objects brought together and artfully arranged. In the eyes of the photographers this helped legitimise the new process as an art form, harking back to a traditional genre in fine art. More practically it was an easy subject to take photographs of in an era of bulky photographic apparatus and a requirement for long exposures.

The subject matter tended to be what was easily available. William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of one of the early photographic processes, took pictures of objects he found around his home at Lacock Abbey in Wiltshire.

Still life photography can be used give the objects depicted greater meaning – to represent something beyond what we can see; or it can offer an opportunity to reflect more deeply on the subject itself, especially if it is something mundane and often overlooked.

Recently I have taken some photographs of old bike parts I found lying around at home. The parts have been acquired over several years, no doubt as part of some “project” that was never quite started. Photographing gave me an opportunity to reflect on each of them and to consider their past. Here are some of those thoughts.

Pedal

It’s the first push of the pedal that does it. Now you’re setting off along the road and it could take you anywhere.

Looking at this pedal I could imagine the foot that would have pressed down on it starting off on their own journeys; from the mundane to the epic. How many revolutions has it made; pushed down on and pulled up over and over again? What road surfaces did it spin a few inches above? Were they smooth tarmac or dusty tracks?

It looks well worn with plenty of marks, perhaps grit thrown up from the road, or perhaps where the bike was propped against or wall or even fallen over.

The other prominent feature (for a cycle geek like me) is that cap on the end; it unscrews and you could get inside to replace and regrease the bearings. I wonder how many times it was taken part; are the bearings inside the same as the ones when it was first manufactured?

Derailleur

This rather eleagant piece of engineering has a brutal function; to literally derail the chain from one sprocket on the freewheel and land it on another. This one is a Shimano 600 Arabesque, probably made sometime in the early 1980s. How many times was this rear derailleur shifted back and forth and what purpose? Into the smallest sprocket to find that extra gear and push the bike on further and faster; or into the largest one to spin more easily when climbing that hill or at the end of a long and wearying ride?

Brakes

These brake blocks look well worn – they also look like they were out of alignment a little bit; the middle has worn more than the edges. What speeds did they have to control? What swoops and turns? What were those descents like? Was the road long and straight so the brakes were barely needed, or did it switch and turn with frequent touches of the brakes into each corner? Were the brakes ever called on to stop the bike suddenly and how well did they do it? (some bicycle brakes, especially older ones, were never very reliable!)


Each of the photographs above are available as limited edition prints from my store on nuMonday. All prints are A4 size on Hahnemühle Photo Lustre 260gsm paper and mounted on a white A3 board with a black bevelled edge to show the image off. It comes in a protective cellophane sleeve. Click on the links below to find out more about each print and how you can purchase them. For a short period you can buy the prints for just £20 each.

Pedal

Derailleur

Brakes

To caption or not to caption?

A few weeks ago I wrote about my plan to carry a notebook with me when I was out photographing to capture some of my thoughts and motivations for choosing a particular subject and composition. I have to say that with most of my intentions it has been somewhat erratic. On the occasions I have made a note, though, it has been interesting to see how far my intentions have been met in the photograph. That then led me on to thinking about the role of words with photographs.

To caption or not to caption?

In an effort to answer that question I decided to take a look at what photographers more famous than myself felt about the subject; borrowing other people’s experiences, as it were.

“I don’t like captions.”

Josef Koudelka

At one extreme, the Hungarian photographer, Josef Koudelka, dismissed captions entirely: “I don’t like captions. I prefer people to look at my pictures and invent their own stories.”

“[captions add] clues to attitudes, relationships and meanings.”

Dorothea Lange

On the other hand, Dorothea Lange, documenter of the American dust bowl in the 1930s, took captioning very seriously.  She wrote in a letter: “This is not a simple clerical matter, but a process, for they should carry not only factual information, but also added clues to attitudes, relationships and meanings.”

The most obvious reason for the differing viewpoints is the purpose of the photographs themselves. Koudelka had been a painter and he saw photography as an artform; Lange was producing photographs to tell a story of the plight of the migrants travelling across United States to try and make a better life for themselves in the face of devastation.

The writer, Jerry L Thompson, photographer, and author of “Why Photography Matters” divides photographers into two sorts: the journalistic ones who care only about the information their work imparts. He argues, “their pictures need captions, and the captions often do the same work as the pictures, though with less visual impact.” (p41). The second sort are the pictorialist ones who care about how the picture looks. For these people their photography is an art and  “their pictures need captions no more than a symphony needs a … story the music can be thought to tell.” (p42).

Lange would have been one of Thompson’s journalistic photographers and her captions added to her work. They tended to be very factual and straightforward, reflecting the fact that she was working under government contract for the Farm Securities Administration, so her words reflected that organisation’s style and purpose, for example:

Country store on dirt road. Sunday afternoon. Note the kerosene pump on the right and the gasoline pump on the left. Rough, unfinished timber posts have been used as supports for porch roof. Negro men are sitting on the porch. Brother of store owner stands in doorway. Gordonton, North Carolina.”

Alfred Stieglitz was the pioneer of photography as an art form in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; he could be described as a pictorialist photographer.  However, he did tend to caption his works. Unlike Lange’s captions, they were shorter, perhaps more like titles. His captions were more to do with how he wanted the viewer to interpret his work. They gave a bigger message, a deeper meaning to the photograph. He captioned one of his photographs of a steam train rolling along railway tracks under a lowering sky, “The Hand of Man“. He was perhaps trying to convey the sense of a man-made landscape in an age when most landscape photographs tended to be of the countryside (the photograph was made in 1903). Without that title what might the picture represent?

A photograph on its own and out of context can be ambiguous. Take a look at any of your photographs of your own family and friends, perhaps on holiday or on special occasions. To you and the subjects, and others who know you all, they are very significant. Imagine, though, someone coming upon your pictures in years to come when everyone in them are long gone. What might they make of your photographs? The people in the pictures now are strangers and any original meaning is lost. The viewer can put their own meaning onto the photographs.

One interesting exercise is to come up with your own caption to a photograph. This is a popular part of the BBC TV quiz show, “Have I got news for you”. The participants are asked to come up with a humorous title to a news photograph; their suggestions are not usually flattering of the subject matter and tend to subvert the original image. You could do this to any photograph not necessarily for humorous effect but as a way of helping you interpret it. Take a look at the picture at the top of this page. It is one I took a few years ago. How might you caption it? I would be intrigued to know your responses.

The caption can be used to provide additional information to support the photograph or it could be used to provide a deeper meaning for the image. Or a photograph could have no caption at all. In which case, could photography be said to be a language itself?  Can it be learnt? I think that will be a subject for another blog entry.

In the meantime, how did you caption my photograph? Here’s a couple of versions:

St Luke’s Church, Old Street, London. One of the churches designed by the eighteenth century architect, Nicholas Hawksmoor. A student of Christopher Wren, he designed a number of churches in and around the City of London following the Great Fire of 1666, of which this was one.

Gothic.

Collective memories

Many years ago I cycled to Corfe Castle in Dorset. As I wandered around the grounds looking up at the ruins soaring above my head I remember overhearing a teacher talking to her primary school class about the history of the building. After a few years I do not remember the precise words but I was struck by one thing.

The castle had been held by the Royalists during the English Civil War until it was overcome by the Parliamentarian forces in 1645. I recall that as the teacher told the story to her charges she described the Royalists as the “goodies” and the Parliamentarians as the “baddies”.

History is, as they say, written by the winners. Whilst the Parliamentarian forces won the Civil War, leading to Charles I’s execution, ultimately, with the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Royalists were the winners. Ever since, the Parliamentarians, or the “Roundheads”, have been seen as the baddies.

This memory has come back to me recently as a result of the Black Lives Matter protests and, specifically, the overthrow of the statue of the merchant and slave trader, Edward Colston, in Bristol. The prime minister, Boris Johnson, described such actions as “lying about our history.”

History is not a single unchangeable event, however. It is constantly changing depending upon the views and the priorities of the people remembering. It is like our memories. There are a lot of things that happened in our own lives that we remember fondly and are happy to recount over and over again. However we all have memories that we rather keep hidden; something embarrassing that we hope never comes to the light again. History is a collective memory and as a collective we have decided what to remember and what to hide away.

The heroic efforts of Lady Mary Bankes holding out against the Parliamentarian forces at Corfe Castle until she was betrayed by one of her members of staff, is one memory, and one which that teacher was passing on to her students on that day out.

There are other memories which we choose collectively to downplay. These aren’t necessarily the embarrassing moments (although they could be embarrassing for somebody – organisations that may have been involved in the slave trade?)

These could be the equally heroic events that we have chosen not to celebrate. For example, during the same war that saw the sacking of Corfe Castle, another person, a man called Thomas Rainborough, stood up and declared:

“I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, Sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under.”

Rainsborough was on the Parliamentarian side, a “baddie”, but he was also part of a movement called the Levellers, one of the earliest organisations calling and campaigning for equality for all people. Today we largely accept the idea that we are all equal and, however imperfectly, we consider that we live in a democracy where everyone’s vote counts.

But in the Seventeenth Century society was more rigid and hierarchical. Whilst the Parliamentarians did not believe that the king ruled by divine right, most of them felt there was a rigid social structure where some people had more rights of representation than others. Rainsborough’s views were described as anarchy by Henry Ireton, a general in the Parliamentarian forces (just to show that history is not black and white).

Rainsborough’s life and death (he was killed by Royalist forces during a bungled kidnap attempt) are commemorated by a few plaques: one at Putney Church, where he made the speech above; another one at the site of his death in Doncaster; and a final one on the wall of the churchyard in Wapping where he was buried. On a recent visit I was not able to find his actual grave.

Thomas Rainsborough, like Mary Bankes and Edward Colston, is a part of our history. Lady Bankes and the Royalists were seen as the “goodies” by that teacher. Overturning Colston’s statue is seen as denying history by the Prime Minister of Britain. But how we remember these people is also our history.

So, what does this have to do with photography? London is full of memorials to people great and small. They are usually the “great” such as kings and generals. At the moment I am seeking the “small”, the unremembered such as Rainsborough for whom there is no grand statue on Whitehall but a simple plaque on a churchyard wall, to bring them to light and to add them to our collective memory.

And to remind us that history is, contrary to popular opinion, constantly rewritten.

A photographic memory

I started taking photographs back in the 1970’s when I was in my late teens. My first “proper” camera where I could control exposure and focus, unlike the point and shoot Instamatic the family used on holidays, was a Zorki 4K, a communist Russian rangefinder loosely based upon the Leica. Later cameras included a Zenith SLR from East Germany, and a black Pentax Spotmatic (which I still have, though no longer functioning).

I have no memory of what made me start taking photographs but I do know that it became all consuming. I had just left school and I was considering what to do next. For a while I thought about becoming a freelance photographer and I manged to get some work in that area. I photographed the personnel of a local charity for their annual report and I also worked with a potter to picture every stage of the making of a teapot. Most memorably I cycled around the Dorset countryside photographing village post offices for a campaign to prevent their closure.

Sadly I did not have the persistence or the assertiveness to make my living out of photography but I still kept taking photographs. I remember thinking that it was something that defined me and that I would always be a photographer of some sort. And I was living somewhere with great photographic potential. Most weekends I would be out on the bicycle exploring the coast and country lanes of Dorset.

My choice of film was usually Kodachrome or some other slide film. The choice was an economic one as the cost of the film usually included developing. I did not need to hang on to exposed rolls before I could afford to get them developed and printed. I would only ever print a handful of the slides. Most of them remained a piece of processed film sandwiched between cardboard or plastic.

The photographs were taken forty years or so ago. For some reason, despite numerous moves, I have hung onto an old shoe box containing many of the slides. Recently, during the Covid 19 lockdown, like many of other people, I turned to tidying up. I found the shoe box and I got distracted from cleaning.

Holding each slide up to the light I wandered back through sunsets and sunrises, village churches, country lanes and solitary beaches. I discovered Weymouth Harbour as it looked in the early 1980’s; and Maiden Castle, the Iron Age hill fort, as it has always been. And as I looked at each of them I began to think of the one thing missing from them all. A figure standing on that beach or in that woodland or on that dirt track holding a camera to his eye.

Photography is often thought of as a form of memory but even though I took each photograph, that I was standing there looking at that scene, I have no recollection of the moment. Time has torn a hole between the person I was then and who I am now.

Once I had finished looking through the photographs and realising that I was not going to go out photographing for some time I thought I would re-purpose these old slides. I could have had prints made of them or scanned them. Instead I decided to try and create something new that would sum up that sense of distance between now and the time when the photographs were taken. I made myself a simple home made light box to view and photograph each slide and I chose a textured surface for the light box to capture that feeling of passing time and fading memory.

You can view some of the results in a gallery here, and a handful will be on a 2021 calendar available for pre-order here.

Riding to the end of the road

As a cyclist I have always been attracted to a road’s potential – where it starts and where it could take me – so I thought I would use my photography to explore this journey. In 2018 I explored the fringes of the Dorset coastline. I sought out country lanes that ran down to the sea to find out what was there. The results were a series of photographs taken from Poole Harbour in the east of the county all the way along to West Bay at the other end. You can view the photographs here.

I have lived in London for many years and very early on I learned how to escape, to find the roads out through the suburbs where eventually the housing would fall away, and fields and woodland would take their place.

Sometimes I cycled so far I ran out of road.

In the summer of 2019 I set out on my bicycle from my home in north London to ride one particular road all the way from my front door to where it finally ended at a place on the Essex coast once known in Anglo Saxon times as Ythanceaster. There is little there now except a chapel standing om the last of the land before the marshes beyond merge with the sea.

My chosen route began at Highbury Fields and I head east to Hackney Downs and Clapton Ponds, all reminders that this was once the countryside. Further out I reach the ragged fringes of Epping Forest as I head towards Wanstead.

London is circled by major roads and I hit the first one when I reach the North Circular where it meets the M11. Even in this hinterland between the roads there are hints of the countryside to come as I cycle along the edge of the River Roding.

Eventually the countryside opens up and I feel I have escaped London. But even here there are occasional tugs that pull me back to the spraw. A golf course, a simulcram of the countryside in the shadow of the the M25; and the M25, London’s orbital motorway. Once I am beyond that though I am deep into Essex, riding along dappled lanes, as I head towards Ingatestone. The “Slow” signs painted on the road remind me to take my time and look around, stop and photograph.

The ride takes me through Maldon where I get the first hint of the sea and then I am on to the Dengie Peninsular, a bleak and isolated part of Essex. The village of Bradwell means I am near the end of the ride. At the church I make a right and head along the final stretch of road.

The end is via a car park for a nature reserve. Now the road turns to gravel. At the far side of the car park there is a gate and a track that runs beside a field peppered with pill boxes left over from the Second World War, and stalked by wind turbines.

The weathered track curves gently and then fades away into the grass. In front of me is the Chapel of St Peter on the wall, and a little shelter where I prop my bicycle under the gaze of a small statue of the Virgin Mary on its back wall.

You can view some of the photographs from the project in the gallery, “Riding to the end of the road”. Many of the photographs were also on display at an exhibition in Lauderdale House, Highgate, London in January 2020.

I put together a short video of that exhibition which you can view below:

The photographic impulse

Just what happens in a photographer’s head when they see their subject in front of them? I can’t answer for others but here are a few of the things that went through my mind when I was out cycling through the Hertfordshire countryside last Sunday.

My first thought as I cycled up what a few moments before had been an empty country lane was, “My goodness; what an awful lot traffic has appeared!”

The verges were lined with parked cars and more vehicles were coming in each direction. For a moment I thought something terrible had happened; a car crash that had closed the lane perhaps? Then I looked over to my left across a hedgerow.

As far as I can see was a field of red bobbing poppies. And amongst the poppies were a lot of people. Some of them were just strolling but there were quite a few clearly there for the purpose of photographing the scene so I felt I had to join in.

A field full of poppies screams to be photographed especially on a day such as that with blue skies and fluffy white clouds but how to approach it? At first I thought I would focus on what had first attracted me to the scene; the people.  But then I thought it would be great to get some pictures of the poppies themselves. After all it is not everyday you come upon such a magnificent scene.

It is at moments like these that the photographic impulse kicks in.  Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke of the “decisive moment” but there can also be an indecisive moment when you are so overwhelmed with your subject matter that you cannot seem to make a decision when to fire the shutter. I know how I want to make a photograph that sums up this place and moment but what does it look like?

I have lately been reading “Towards a philosphy of photography” by Vilem Flusser and one of the things that has struck me was his description of a photographer as a stalker hunting his or her prey: That’s what I felt like as I roamed along the edge of the field, looking this way and that, sometimes dropping down low and occaisionally looking through the viewfinder to see if the potential photograph matched up with what I could see unmediated by the lens.

I took one or two wide view shots of the entire field then focussed on an individual poppies either against the sky or from above isolated in the midst of the turned soil. In the end the photograph here was taken as I was about to leave and I observed a small group crossing the middle of the field.

For me it seems to sum up what I saw and felt in that field on that morning.

Later I cycled on to a nearby church to explore. It stood down a short side road off the lane. At that moment in common with other places of worship it was still locked but I was happy to explore the outside and to add to my collection of photographs of the quiet corners of churchyards.

For a second time the photographic impulse came over me but this time it was for a slightly different reason. The sun was shining and I could hear a gentle breeze and the bird song in the trees above my head. This was the furthest I would ride today and at some point I would have to head home but for the moment that could wait.

Sometimes I feel like I would like to keep on photographing, to not stop. I first started taking photographs when I was in my early twenties and I can remember at the time that I felt that there was nothing else I wanted to do. Being a photographer defined me. With everything, of course, we move on and the thing that seemed so important can fade into insignificance as other priorities take its place. So it was with photography for me until recently.

Now I find myself again wanting to hold the camera and to wait for the right moment when time and space is aligned within the viewfinder. I think it is that time and space, that sense of moment that I am trying to capture. In the churchyard before I got backon the bike I scribbled a few thoughts, making a note of the time (ten to twelve). It’s a habit of mine from when I used to write a diary (all long vanished) and would record the actual instant of writing; my surroundings and the time.  It is as if I am trying to capture or stay in that moment forever. Is that what I am trying to do when I take photographs?