Sunday, 31 May 2009

Have a Happy Hay-On-Wye Time

It's that most, wonderful time...of the year!

No, not Christmas (thankfully). It's summer festival time, a period of a few months when the media go music-latest-band-mad. Newspapers are packed with photographs of music revelers basking in sun...or wallowing bravely in mud and torrents of rain. And the obligatory retro-comeback star (a la Shirley Bassey) in wellies.

But as much as I love my music (don't get me started on how much I adore Rufus Wainwright and how he re-seals my wounded soul), my favourite festival is actually one of the book variety. The 2009 Hay-On-Wye literary festival comes to a close, and once again I am left counting down the days to the 2010 festival.

Hay-On-Wye has always been a favourite jaunt of mine. My parents took us there frequently as kids on rainy Sunday afternoons when we had exhausted all the local castles and museums. Admittedly, I probably wanted to go to Disney Land if I had had the choice, but I am glad for it now. It was at Hay I realised as a kid how much I loved books, or rather how much I adored a good story.

The Hay-On-Wye Festival reminds me a lot of Wimbledon. No really. And given how much time I spend wandering the grounds of SW19 trying to spot Cliff Richard and Virginia Wade in her pink cardigan, I probably see more tennis at Hay than I do there. You've got the Pimms, the odd queue, the cravats and the DelMonte Man hats. And the celebrities.

There's something about these events that seems to nurture comedy value and entertainment. They seem to harness a microcosm of British eccentricity that makes me feel all warm inside. If you ever start believing the exaggerated claims the country is 'going to the dogs' (thought we were a nation of dog lovers anyway so why should that be an issue...), go to an event like the Hay festival. It reminds you that quite the opposite is true.
It is a photographers' and observer's dream. Personally, this is aided by being accompanied by Mother, who never fails to provide me with amusing interludes. We had only been in Hay five minutes before Mother quipped "Oh! I need to remove my fleece! Never known it so hot. Not on a Sunday."
Not to mention her hyperventilating at the sight of Monty Don strolling towards her, Mr Cool-Clark-Gable-esque, a train of adoring ladies agog at the vision of him. I guess he's the Zack Efron of the middle-aged-gardening world, he didn't even need to wield his parsnips. But I will remember to bring a brown paper bag for Mother to breathe into next year. Or an oxygen cylinder.

Hay gives you an opportunity to see writers, philosophers and politicians, people who often don't scale the dizzy heights of the media attention because they're not in the Big Brother house (yet). Although you do get stars of TV and film too. Where else can you stand next to DJ Jo Whiley in the bap queue (Mother: "She doesn't look like a media personality. Tsk."), and then watch Jane Asher floating by, with Mother commentating LOUDLY: "I was so very upset when she split with Paul!". You learn that Richard Madeley possibly needed a shave that day, or that in real life, Melvyn Bragg resembles Columbo.

Amongst the various eating establishments- I recommend the homemade Welsh cakes, simply exquisite- the little stalls selling fascinators to elderly ladies, or literary-themed merchandise (a hatstand quoting the entire works of shakespeare anyone?), and the grassy areas where you can laze and read away to your hearts content, you can sit and chill. And listen. One of the things I enjoy most about the Hay festival is the people watching, overhearing delightful snippets of random conversation that are so sparkling, they could be part of an Alan Bennett monologue or a Zoe Heller novel.
Two older ladies heading towards the Jenni Murray book signing queue are overheard saying loudly one to the other: "Have YOUR periods stopped now?" rather mockingly as if the one couldn't join the others' gang unless she was menopausal. Or one lad to another: "There's that politician....David Cameron" Labour MP Ed Milliband didn't look impressed as he shifted by the fudge stall. "Pimms Jeremy?" said one cravated middle-aged chap to his friend in a snazzy baige blazer. "I never say no!" replied the friend enthusiastically before pausing. "Apart from earlier. Actually, I'll say no again". "Sammy wanted to come," one trendy young lady said to her equally trendy friend. "But she said she's seen enough of Stephen Fry on twitter to last a lifetime". Oh it was a never-ending wonderful stream of consciousness....

But aside from the comedy aspect, there is a lot of evocative and thought provoking material on offer. As there should be. You share the appreciation in the genius of words and language, an art form into itself. And I must admit, I find the Hay Festival inspiring. Melvyn Bragg's talk on his autobiographical fiction was both heart-wrenching and emotionally draining; he spoke so eloquently about his experiences in writing about topics that had affected him, and it was fascinating. It was also extremely close to the bone, and touched me a great deal. Zoe Heller's warm and sparkling wit combined with a down-to-earth personality was impressive and motivational. With a few titters, I learnt from Susie Dent that Nottingham used to be called Snottingham. The astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, spoke of the possibilities that perhaps, our brains are not designed to ever comprehend the universe in its entirety - leaving my own (already confuzzled) mind spellbound and enlightened. To see Alan Bennett in the flesh, one of my favourite writers was a real joy to behold. Even Mother was about to pass me the brown paper bag to hyperventilate into, her turn to chuckle at my expense.

Ah sweet Hay. You tempt us with your literary treats and do not disappoint. You make us want to dive into a swimming pool of books and gorge ourselves on shakespearean prose. I've seen the festival grow from a small town affair held in the village school, to a major world renown event. I'll even forgive all the 'making Hay' puns. And the cravat-action. Forget Christmas, I wish it could be the Hay Festival every day.

See my 2009 Hay Festival photos here

Friday, 22 May 2009

"I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn't photograph them." - Diane Arbus

Thinking back at when I studied photography, *cue Hovis ad music* and yes I can remember that far back, there are always one or two images from prolific photographers that particularly re-appear in my mind's playback facility. Whether I liked the photographs or not, their power or impact obviously tattooed themselves into my subconscious.

One such image was Diane Arbus' photograph: Child with Toy Hand Grenade. It's bizarreness intrigued and fascinated me, I wanted to comb every inch of the print with my eyes. But it also made me want to stride down the lecture room, pull the slide out of the machine and throw it out the window into the path on oncoming escaped wildebeests.

A photograph that draws such a conflicted set of emotions certainly put a firework up my artistic undercrackers. The scrawny boy is pulling a gruesome face, he looks utterly strange; he's stood in an American park, his stance is odd and uncomfortable, his clothes ruffled. He's holding a toy grenade in a bizarre fashion, he looks agitated. Everything about the image seems wrong, and yet a lot of it seems right too. It's an image I've never forgotten, and I've never truly deciphered why I loved and yet also pretty much despised it.

It was with joy that I saw this very image at the National Museum of Wales, Cardiff, last week, where the Diane Arbus exhibition is on display until August.

Diane is one of the most famous female contemporary photographers in the world. And a controversial one. Her images capture people, normal people in settings and surroundings we all recognise and relate to. Yet her talent was in making the normal look...anything but. They are packed with connotations and tensions.
In fact, some of the profiles make the subject look out of this world; it is as if Diane had uncovered a rock from an undiscovered land and released it's alien inhabitants scuttling into our society. It is this conflict of normality and the bizarre that draws and yet also repulses you. They are a fascinating insight into the (alleged) less desirable members of society, highlighting the way people mask their reality, as well as displaying the fact that appearances are deceptive.

Some claimed Diane's images were exploitative and demeaning. And you can understand this view point, particularly with her set of 'untitled' images, of people with mental disabilities. You begin to question the reasoning, whether the subjects were able to make a judged decision over allowing their images to be taken.
You even begin to question your own feelings to feeling this way. Am I being demeaning and patronising towards the subjects by questioning Diane's reasoning in the first place? Quite probably and very possibly. Which for me, makes the images all the more interesting.

But what draws me in particular to Diane's work is not necessarily the photographs themselves, but her ideology behind it, her thoughts on photography as a whole, on how she wanted to use it as medium. As soon as I read her thoughts and quotes, it was as if two loose and lost wires in my head had finally become connected again, allowing the circuit to flow.

'I really believe there are things nobody would see if I didn't photograph them.'
'My favorite thing is to go where I've never been.'
'A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.'

These particular quotes struck such a chord, the internal mind strings have been strumming along ever since. Whilst I am obviously no where near Diane's level (she being Everest, me being a mole hill in the back garden), I've long been fascinated in photographing the unusual and in particular the abandoned, inanimate objects that people have dumped or disregarded. I have always been interested in how photography reveals nothing and poses more questions, something which I explored extensively in my 'Memories of my Nan' photography project. And I like nothing more than discovering new places or things/objects under your nose to snap.
I love photographing things people wouldn't normally, 'conventionally' want to photograph. I particularly see a melancholic beauty in derelict buildings, which to me, is actually as picturesque as a Brecon Beacon landscape. An image of a derelict building conjures, to me, so many emotions and questions and possibilities, it makes my imagination water. And yet nothing is ever answered. Tantalisingly.
To read Diane's thoughts was an odd and yet wonderful experience. I now don't care how bad or good I am at taking an image, I enjoy viewing the world this way, and it is reassuring that we actually all see things so differently. Otherwise life would be so 2D, and we might as well jack it all in and become Zelebrity-Zobsessed-Zombies. [Pretentious mode/]

It is sad Diane committed suicide so young, like many talented artists and musicians (and alarmingly like so many of my idols), you are left wondering about the work that was never done, just as much as the wonderful achievements already accomplished.

Go and see the Diane Arbus exhibition. It is a remarkable set of images that will have a lasting impression on anyone who sees it. And you may well find yourself feeling rather conflicted. You may chuckle. You may want to cry. You may feel turned off. You may feel inspired. Just don't try to throw any images out of the window and towards any stampeding wildebeest. Or if you do, just don't tell anyone where you got the idea from and let me photograph it.

BBC article on the exhibition in Wales.
My Memory Photo Project
Urban Exploration - My derelict asylum images

Friday, 15 May 2009

A Battery Life For Me

Lately I have noticed something that has increasingly taken control of my thoughts, something more annoying than the media's obsession with MPs expenses, and something more additively obsessive than Twitter (don't get me started on that alluring, genius web 2 concept that is the siren of social networking).

No, my life has been taken over by another kind of life. That of the humble battery. It's been there a while, tinkering away in the back of my subconscious...a running process in the system. I think it began when I purchased my first (and only so far, I am proud to say) iPod. This was in about 1789, when iPods were clockwork and you had to carve out your playlists in slate.
It wasn't long into my iPod ownership that I became rather intrigued by how long the battery would last with continuous useage.

It was important to me, I felt at the time, that I could last a whole day away from the sanctuary of a plug socket or USB port, to be able to listen to Rufus Wainwright, REM and Kate Bush for the entire duration. Yes, even whilst still in lectures, to block out that inconvenient noise of someone talking about something. Music was a big part of my day. It was an absolutely calamity if I couldn't listen to any. Even if I actually, well, couldn't listen to my iPod, I still had to have a full battery. I still had to have the peace of mind that I could, at any time, whip out the little magical white box of musical delights, and hear Bonnie Tyler rasping out her gravelly best. Or melt away in the melancholic beauty of Nick Drake as I trudged through dreary Trefforest. If the mood so took me.

I began doing what all good obsessives do. You Google.

Google is to us obsessives, what crack is well crackheads. You Google battery life and discover 8634567890 begillion ipod users with 97766544 trillion different tales of either wondrous, or despicable battery experiences. This has the effect of both reassuring you, but also annoyingly showing what you could have: "BilboBaggins69 says 'I got 7,976 hours of battery life out of my iPod last week...and it made me dinner'", as well as filling your every pore with terror with tales of woe: "DottyComDotCom says 'My battery lasted 2 minutes before it was completely drained and the world imploded into apocalyptic meltdown. Even Beezlebub turned up and prodded me with pitchforks".
But mostly it makes you paranoid, so you do not reach any other conclusion than a state of sheer panic. Well, you do if you're tragically pathetic like me. You start using your ipod and monitoring the battery use/wear. I'd catch myself counting how many hours worth I had had, it was on my mind constantly. Was this normal? Was this defective? I think I even dreamt I was a battery hen.
When I went to Australia, I spent so long stressing over what I would do if my ipod battery ran out during the 12 hour flight (because obviously, there's nothing else to do on a plane. At all. Ever), that I didn't even get around to using the damn thing.

Slowly but surely, I soon got over this. Mostly because I realised these devices were there to be used, and mostly because I realised I was being a complete daftie.

But this obsession has returned with vengeance. It's leaner, it's meaner, it's fitter. It's the battery life obsession GTi with go-faster-stripes. In december I upgraded my mobile phone, and in a moment of sheer reckless lunacy, I plumped for a 3G phone. Probably due to my obsession with t'internet (but that fixation is an entirely different rambling essay for another day).

Battery life now rules my own existence more than ever. I use my phone for everything. It's my watch, it's my alarm clock, it's my music player, it's my communication to the outside world via text, via t'internet, via emails (I don't speak anymore, I only use the medium of mime or URLs). It's where I use twitter to tweet about what fascinating sandwich I am munching on, which thrills the world. It's where I take little comical photographs of whimsical daftness when I don't have my camera on me. It's where I can play games, and scan barcodes and find out my GPS position. It's even my flashlight in the dark. When someone rings me it plays a favourite tune, which I then will often sit back and enjoy so much, I'll forget to answer. Ok, put it this way, I bloody love this phone and can't cope without it (okay, I can. Just).

Alas. The battery is as weak as Wales' attempts to qualify for the football world cup. It makes a pocket calculator look like the NASA control computer. O the woe and disappointment! And yes, the frustration and annoyance that this causes means all day I am keeping an eye out for a plug socket, trying to ration my texting, planning my useage. I get stressed out. What if I am walking home, with no juice in the phone, (rhyme not intended this time honest) and I fall over and break my leg!? What if I am out in my car and I break down with only the Bates Motel nearby!? Even worse, what if I see something hilariously comical and can't share it!? This isn't right. How can the manufacturers do this to me, in this supposed technological-driven world we live in? Kraftwerk lied to me, we are not the Robots.
My spontaneous whimsical texts and tweets have to be...well...spontaneous! Otherwise I'll be turning into a manufactured communicator. For the world desperately needs to know that I am sat contemplating making a sculpture out of paperclips, that I like to chuckle at the chocolate-eating-whilst-exercising-woman in the gym, that I like my plums, or that I can see a man picking his nose in Starbucks.


Then again. I could just actually buy a watch and talk to people in person. And have some perspective. Now there's a notion.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

A New Poet, And Downcha Know It

The new Poet Laureate was announced recently. For a split second I was alarmed. Duffy!? All she's done is ride around on a bike sounding like a demented goat in some very un-droll Coke advert.

Who would want to be Poet Laureate, writing nice about a royal?
At least this latest literary news, diverts flu and Susan Boyle.