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The Generalist photographer

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Recently I was asked to review a set of images by a photographer here in Lincoln. First of all, I should make it clear, though I was happy to oblige, this is not something I generally do because I don’t consider myself an expert. I’ve just taken a lot of pictures in my life, some of which I’ve liked and some have been liked by others. Perhaps that’s enough to give me the tools to comment? I don’t know.
What I do know, is that taking tens of thousands of pictures provides some opinion forming perspective.

“Your first 10,000 photographs are your worst.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson

Reviewing the photographers images I could see strong similarities with my own trajectory through photography. My own labours and experiences reflected in her work. I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me back up a little and perhaps start from a different position.

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Coventry in 2007

In the latter decades of the last century we lived in Coventry, in the West Midlands of England.

Coventry is an ancient city with Roman encampments, even a Roman Legion training camp, on the outskirts. It’s famous for, amongst other things, a former inhabitant, one Lady Godiva.
Whilst we lived there, as part of our business, we became early adopters of World Wide Web technology, usage and programming. We decided to produce a website about Coventry, the city where we lived, its development and its history – and in the process we would see what we could discover about Lady Godiva.

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Mysterious structures in the woods

Despite being locked down for months, in fact, probably because of it, I have tried to get out and about in the privacy of local woodland. Yes I see people but Bess, the Labrador, and I give them plenty of room.

Over the past few months somebody enters the woods and builds structures with fallen pieces of timber. I’ve never seen the builder. It’s very mysterious.
Never finished, never covered with tarpaulin or canvas, these structures seem more about art than do about shelter – well they do to me anyhow.L1020441-EditL1020445-EditL1020305-Edit


Urbex at Nocton Hospital

As you may be aware, in the second world war Lincolnshire was home to many airfields. So much so, a specialist RAF hospital was set up near Lincoln in the  sleepy  village of Nocton. The village had already housed a similar set up during the first world war which had taken over  the ancient Manor House and grounds.

The Hospital was expanded during WW2 so as to provide medical support for the many RAF  and USAF airmen stationed across the County.

Post war, the hospital was again expanded to provide a more general medical support for the growing number of RAF families in Lincolnshire and beyond when, amongst other changes, the maternity unit was constructed. My wife’s family were RAF and indeed my mother in law was treated there and one of my brothers in law was born there 60-odd years past.

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Soot and Distemper

In a conversation I was having with fellow photographer John Meehan over on ‘WhatsApp’ he quoted the phrase “Soot and whitewash” to describe prints using an economy of tones in mono printing.

The conversation started after I  published the image shown above of Saltley Gas Works in Birmingham taken back in the late 60’s – early 70’s. Very reduced tonal scale, very grainy and even scratched. I said it was redolent of the times.

John’s phrase came from a book called “Young Meteors” by Martin Harrison in which he discusses photographers and their styles in the years 1957-1965. The tonal compression style of McCullin, Bulmer et al is dramatic. The images jump off the page.

I wrote in my previous piece on WhatsApp how Saltley, where I was born and lived for a few years, has left a strong impression on me, reflected in this Gas Works shot.

For me *“Soot and Whitewash” has 2 meanings:

  • The first, clearly, is the graphical reduction of tones in a black and white print;
  • The second meaning reflecting more on nostalgia, age, shared outside toilets and the grinding poverty of the day.

*I’ve changed the quote slightly for the title of this piece using “Soot and Distemper” – distemper being another, more arcane word for whitewash which seems far more appropriate relating to my second interpretation of the phrase.

I realise I have carried these early impressions as a ‘preset’ in my head, as it were, for most of my photographic life. I was once described as being from “The Dustbin School” by one critic. He was not far wrong. I deserved it and probably still do.

A few years ago I discovered the work of a Japanese photographer ‘Daido Moriyama’. His work seems the antithesis of what most modern practitioners are searching for – and certainly in contradiction of the camera manufacturers obsession – particularly Fuji etc –  with razor sharp images.

Moriyama’s images are all taken on “Snapshot” cameras –  either film or digital, nearly always originated in colour but made Monochrome and are heavily printed in  (extreme) ‘Soot and Whitewash’ style. They are often blurred by movement. They are out of focus and strongly graphic – influenced no doubt by his early occupation as a graphic designer. In the main he prefers working in the city, in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo in particular, near to his home. People say about his work that sometimes it’s not possible to see what the image is as it is so abstract. Safe to say he is no Ansel Adams. But then ‘Photography’ is a broad church.

Moriyama says he prefers to see his work in books. The books themselves are unstructured. He says you can start anywhere and move anywhere in his books. That’s not to say he doesn’t have gallery shows, he does. Even these gallery shows are unusual. Once he laid out trays of his images and visitors picked whichever images appealed to them which were then bound into books in the gallery, which he duly signed.

Along with work by Brandt and McCullin, who both influenced my early work, Moriyama has now become an influence on my way of seeing – and then capturing and ‘printing’ what I see.

PDBarton July 2020


Young Meteors Martin Harrison Jonathan Cape. London. ISBN 0-224-05129-6

Videos on Moriyama:
I’ll leave you to choose your own information on Moriyama. There is a lot of information on You Tube. Just search for Daido Moriyama. Personally I like his Book Shasin yo Sayonara of which he said…

“Of my many books of photographs, Bye, Bye Photography, is closest to my heart. Even now, when I flip through the pages, some thirty years after making it, the book instantly brings back vivid memories of the sixties… Could one give meaning to the meaningless act of printing a simple black and white of a frame that by accident recorded nothing? Perhaps the authority of the failed negative, with all its inherent possibility, could be restored. I imagined I could construct a book – a book of pure sensation without meaning – by shuffling into a harmonious whole a series of childish images…”
(Daido Moriyama)


Proverbs 21:13

This image was made underneath the arches of the 16thC Stonebow in the centre of ancient Lincoln, in the East Midlands of England.

Before Covid it became the natural  haunt of an ever-changing group of Jehovahs witnesses; capturing – or hoping to at least – the attention of the thousands who pass by on their way from downhill Lincoln, the commercial part of the city, to uphill Lincoln, where the Cathedral and Lincoln Castle stand, the tourist part of the city.
Thousands of tourists and local shoppers pass through here everyday. Once upon a long time ago, amazingly, motor buses did the same, long since stopped.

This day, a homeless man and his dog sat under the historic shelter too.

In the time I stood there, several minutes, the pious Jehovah’s Witnesses, with their scrubbed shiny faces and their clarion – and yet ironic – message of “Find Family Happiness” paid him no attention; cast him ne’er a glance; certainly they didn’t offer him or his dog any comfort.

There seemed something utterly at odds between the avowed intent of their religious dogma and their inaction.

Meanwhile, the throngs of ghostly passers by shuffled past, ignoring everybody, pious and hungry alike, in this modern day tableau for our times.

I rarely spend much time making images. I usually see the picture, make it and leave. This time I spent no short amount of time constructing this image. It was taken very slowly and purposefully. I felt it was important  I do so.

Image made, December 2019.

July 2020

Harry Burton. The man who shot Tutankhamun.

In late 2017-early 2018, The Collection – a modern extension to Lincoln’s Usher Gallery – held a small exhibition of the photographs of Harry Burton. Who? You may ask.

The Story of Harry Burton.
Without doubt  Burton, himself an Egyptologist, was considered the finest photographer of antiquities of his day. It was natural, therefore, for him to be chosen by Carter as the photographer who would document the excavation of the tomb of Tutankhamun in the Valley of the Kings near to Thebes – modern day Luxor.

Harry Burton – on the left of the picture above – is shown with Howard Carter at the dig site in the Valley of the Kings. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Who was Burton? Where did he come from?

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The meaning behind ‘The Greenhouse’

Recently, I was musing on the relevance of images to each of us and how that changes from person to person.

People see an image and it means different things to each person. The image  effects them. To some that effect is deep and meaningful, visceral even, and to others it’s trite and meaningless. I can’t account for that except it’s perhaps what allows us to “edit” the millions of images we see, into piles – important/trivial, like/dislike – and I have to say, in the main, that’s how my own editing works. Binary. On / off – like / dislike.

Phil Cosker, a dear friend of mine, a photographer, writer and all round Renaissance Man, produced a set of images nearly 40 years ago. Recently he displayed them – printed very large – in a number of churchyards around Lincolnshire.

Even more recently he has included them on his web site <<<HERE>>> under the title “Landscapes”. I was assisting Phil with his web site at the time and as I was uploading the images, one in particular ‘Hit me’. And that is not much of an exaggeration. It’s the image of a dilapidated greenhouse shown above.

Now, as I said “People see an image and it means different things to each person” add to that at 73 with my foot well over the threshold of my dotage, this is how it spoke to me.

It struck me just how strong a metaphor for the passage of time and impending old age it is.

  • The design and construction of the structure have a quality of times past, tradition if you like. I remain a man of my time.
  • The once shiny protecting glass is cracked and broken. I’m not so glossy anymore – if indeed  I was in the first place.
  • It doesn’t appear to be standing straight. That is as it is.
  • Impending collapse is imminent. It will take only a slight nudge to alter its state. With a small hand full of issues that’s very true.
  • The structure is corrupted by wet rot and is unstable. Amen to that.
  • It’s not as well maintained as it once was. Amen to that too.
  • It’s seems to be struggling to keep things from falling out – grabbing onto memories of times-past. There is more dropping out of my clouded noddle nowadays than is going in.


 Old age writ large across the remnants of its and my own corporeal being.

And yet, still it stands, doing its job, sort of. Though rickety, it’s still protecting – showing the present what the past looked like and how the job was done. Dilapidated, and yet it remains shabbily regal and very frayed, chic even (on a good day at least).

The trees in the background are blurred. That in itself continues the metaphor. Present day life passes by at such a speed. It’s all such a blur.

Rarely has a picture spoken to me so directly. Rarely have I taken so much out of a picture.

I know… as my wife, Sue, says, “you think too much”.

I remind her, like the Greenhouse, I shall eventually fall apart and collapse. As indeed shall we all.

Production Notes  and Copyright
The image was taken with a large wooden 5 x 4 camera and a vintage lens The quality is extraordinary. The small image shown here does not do it justice.

The image is Copyright ©Phil Cosker and has been used here with his permission.
Phil can be contacted from his web site <<<HERE>>> .
While you are there take a few minutes to view some of his photographic work and perhaps sign up to receive his weekly 500 word stories, some of which you can read  <<<HERE>>>. You wont regret it.

Lincoln. 2020

The little cares that fretted me…

Out in the fields.

Original by Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
My apologies for the corruption.

The little cares that fretted me
I lost them yesterday,
Among the fields above the sea,
Among the winds at play,
Among the lowing of the herds,
The rustling of the trees,
Among the singing of the birds,
The humming of the bees.

The foolish fears of what might happen.
I cast them all away
Among the clover-scented grass.
Among the new-mown hay,
Among the husking of the corn,
Where drowsy poppies nod
Where ill thoughts die and good are born—
Out in the fields with the dog.

Then the snarling farmer barks,
“Get Off My Fucking Land”
And breaks up the reverie.

PDBarton May 2020