The Mask

No wonder that the child at the end of the corridor started screaming and squirming to escape parental arms. Was it the red, the colour of blood? Red, the colour of fire, burning throughout life, from liquid birth to desiccated death, snuffed to ashy black. The white, the colour of innocence and purity, in that moment, overshadowed. Daylight was needed, escape from this cave of stories.

Wearing the mask makes the storytelling safe. It does not matter who tells that story: everyman or no man. It’s the rich associations of the mask that dominate the encounter. This mask has many tales to tell, and only one tale: that of life and death. Softened by white, underpinned by red. If that story is one we do not want to hear, we cry for exit.

Who has put on that vital mask? Perhaps a god, or just a saint. Sainthood pulls us near, yet pushes us away. It’s not for us; it separates us from transcendence. We’re attracted to the power, the radiance. We approach because we want to feel the warmth of the fire, and, at the same time, we bow our heads, humbled, keeping our distance.

Children will often tread fearlessly. For them, the mask is a let’s pretend, a peek-a-boo game that is seasonally fascinating. An all-knowing, all powerful oracle, a god to whom they can tell their secrets, their innermost desires. There is learning to be acquired. And later they may create their own mask, and wait and hope that others will choose to see through to their inner self.

It’s true that many adults have been burned; they find it difficult to play this game. Yet for those who are willing, who boldly visit the secret territory of sainthood, their early fears are forgotten in the telling of this red and white story. An old man and a young child share their innocence, and from this springs hope.

It takes courage to look at the eyes behind the mask, this whiskery white mask which is not a mask, but a negation, a frame, a disguise contrived from myth and marketing – the two activities that subvert human need, creating distraction, leading to nothingness. Then the mask becomes opaque. We are told stories that merely entertain us; we are not meant to see through them.

So let us treasure this moment when hope is supreme. Let us rejoice in the tenacity of those who hold onto hope, because hope is so easily transmuted into desire, into wishes for those bright shiny distractions, bolstered by popular approbation, but which in reality are hollow and crumble to ash.

Emerging from the blackened chimney, sustained by irrelevant age, you exquisitely bring the mask to life once more. You put on the robes of sainthood, don the mask and look out into a naive sparkling world, there to dispense the little wisdom you have acquired, as a gift to the young person who has sought your company, in whom hope is alive.

But even then this flimsy mask creates a barrier, preventing true communion. You find that you cannot put this wisdom into words that the young person will understand. So instead, you tell a story, a story that will delight them, transport them into a different reality, a story which contains a truth hidden in symbols and images, a truth hidden behind a mask, a story of good and evil, and above all, of hope.

 

© 2017 Peter Young

 

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Another World

Looking into the miniature world in the centre of a Dicksonia Tree Fern in Hidcote Garden.

© 2017 Peter Young

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The Old Swimming Pool

The Watcher on the Roof

Seen from the viewing gallery of the defunct swimming pool, a builder on the roof of a house in the next road supervises some repair work.

Boarded Up

Sansome Walk Swimming Pool closed on the last day of 2016. Last week, I organised a visit for the Camera Club to capture the interior of this building to see what had happened since. For some members it was a nostalgic trip down memory lane: “this is where I first swam …”, but it was also a way of recording local history as a 1970s building nears the end of its life.

Bright Colours

We were met by an extremely accommodating Voids Officer, and were free to explore this labyrinthine building for the whole afternoon. The photographs ranged from the architectural general views to records of the small details of what was left behind by the occupants when they vacated the building. It was also an opportunity to sample the rather dated aesthetic taste of those who did their best to make the building user-friendly.

The Herd

Meanwhile, in the viewing gallery, the Friesian-like seats look onto the empty swimming pools, as they wait for the end.

 

© 2017 Peter Young

 

 

 

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Parasols & Sponges

Parasols wait in the early morning light, about to spread their wings to celebrate the reopening of The Firs: Elgar’s Birthplace on 1 September 2017 under National Trust stewardship.

Reflected in the kitchen utensils, the first sponge-cakes are out of the oven, to be finished and served in the new Tea Room.

© 2017 Peter Young

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Art trouvé

An evocative image emerges from some worked patches of paint on an artist’s palette.
What do you see? Perhaps a group of women with colourful head-wear setting off with intent (and missing the thumb-hole).

© 2017 Peter Young

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Funfair

We thought it might be fun so paid our fee,
And dawdled through the booths enough to see
That time had not stood still but had reversed
To childhood thrills and fears, all interspersed
With raucous music, garish tawdry tat
And all those lurid snacks that make you fat.
The fun, if such it be, is in the now
And filled with piercing shrieks and shouts of Wow!
As broken columns signify a death,
That funfair hoarding sighed its final breath,
Expiring half way through that clichéd text
To leave us free to choose our where to next.

 

© 2017 Peter Young

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Seeing the Light

Custard Factory Light Well

I was off on a photo-shoot in Birmingham. Having arrived at New Street Station, with my printed off google map in hand, I set off briskly for the Custard Factory.

I thought I was on a road that would take me in the right direction, but after ten minutes or so, and having traversed some construction sites just south of the centre, I realised that I was lost. I couldn’t locate myself according to the map; it just didn’t seem to match the reality I was in. Time to ask people. The first man I met had a strong Eastern European accent, and spent a minute or so staring at my map … Another man approached, so I transferred my question to him: Where am I? But he was unfamiliar with this area. A third man pulled out his mobile phone and did a map search. Could have been a brilliant solution, having the path dotted across a map, but having transferred the key details of the travel directions into my brain, the confusion of the streets soon took over as I retraced my steps past the Mega-Bus stop – the same people still waiting. I thought I’d try a taxi, but they didn’t take plastic: “I can take you to a cash-point.” I walked on. The next man I met had an A–Z, and we both studied that, but he came to the conclusion that I was on completely the wrong side of New Street Station – something I was not convinced about.

There was a landmark ahead – the pagoda in Holloway Circus – so I set off feeling a bit more confident. But having turned right up a road, after a few hundred yards I lost any conviction that this was a sensible direction and turned back. On the opposite side of the road, I spotted a hotel. Surely they would know where they were. However, at the bar/reception, the young girl didn’t answer my question, but instead simply gave me a City Centre map. This was useful. But I still had to make the map work for me, as I still wasn’t quite sure where I was. Out in the street I unfolded the map and studied it, looking for the landmark. I stopped the next couple to ask for help in locating it. It was then that I noticed the You Are Here maps posted on posts at key intersections. I excused myself and went to study the one nearby. Now I knew where Holloway Circus was and the map on the post suggested a course of action. But for some reason, the two maps didn’t quite align in orientation, nor with the mental map I’d been building up in my ramblings… I needed to mentally align these three maps before setting off once more. At last I was ticking off the street names (and asking when they weren’t visible) and mentally cheering when the street ahead agreed with the map in my hand. Ten minutes later I arrived at the Custard Factory. This whole journey had taken me the best part of an hour. I was hot and sweaty, and grateful when Jonathan, who came down to reception to escort me up to the second floor, offered me a cup of tea.

The meeting had just begun. Rachel sat there focusing on the group and didn’t acknowledge me. I poked my head in the room, and Kiki, who was sitting in the corner, got up and joined me. She then sang my praises to the group – how I was a brilliant photographer, how I was a key part of the process, and so on. I felt a bit of an imposter; was I there on false pretenses?

We went outside and had a short discussion. Rachel and Kiki told me that, given how important my role in the project had been so far, they wanted to interview me on my perception of how the project seemed to me. They wanted my point of view as photographer. Oh, horrors, I thought. This was probably not the best time to download the contents of my brain. I didn’t think they would really want to hear about my current confusion! Anyway, they had to leave the workshop to do something else, but they would be back later. I would have time to get my ideas together.

Looking back, this whole story seemed to be a rich metaphor for how I felt about the project: I was bewildered with no idea where I was going. None of the people I asked for direction could give me any sensible clues about where I was or how I was going to reach my destination. I wasn’t even clear where I was nor where I was heading. I wondered if this was an accurate analogy, or just how it appeared in my frustrated and flustered condition.

Now I had to perform. I was here to take photographs of the group, led by Chris, assisted by Belle, and seven creative writers Writing West Midlands. I sorted myself out, drank my tea, cooled off a bit, grabbed a camera and set to work. It was just a bunch of people sitting round a mosaic of tables, with just enough space left to get round the edge of the room. And this was how they were going to be all day – they would only move into the spacious office next door during the breaks. Not the best place to take photos. The blessing was there were wall-to-wall high windows on two sides of the room, so a good enough amount of light.

So from time to time during the next five hours I took photos of the group. They were writing. They were drawing. The read out what they had written, and they talked about objects they had brought with them, and about what they had drawn. If I could get a good angle, I’d take a photo. Sometimes it would be of the piece of paper, or the objects on the table that they were referring to. One woman, a late arrival, had told me that she did not want to be photographed so I quickly deleted some photographs already taken – the rest would have to wait until I was going through them later. At other times, when they were in the middle of an exercise, I would take photos out of the window. Digbeth is an interesting area of the city; there’s a fine view of the railway arches and the city centre, and the near view of people in the street below and the artistic graffiti. I’d mooch around the second floor, photographing the architecture and the monochrome decoration of the Custard Factory: the round windows, light wells, visible plumbing and so on.

So here I was, in a position I had often found myself in before, indeed, had set up for myself: the observer. Part of the group and yet not part of the group. The watcher from the shore as others launched themselves out into uncharted waters. Not a lifeguard, more a daymark – the fixed points of my photographs providing future anchors of an evanescent experience. The “Oh, I remember that!” comments were yet to come.

I left before the end. As several members of the group had already gone, and the last exercise did not promise to produce anything visual, I took my leave, and headed back for New Street Station. Even that was an obscure goal at times. Birmingham is not well sign-posted, and on a Saturday afternoon, crowded with people. It was a relief to get on the train, and reflect on the day.

Later, looking at the photos I’d taken, I realised what it was that Rachel and Kiki liked about my work. I do capture people doing things – even if it’s not very dramatic. People writing, talking, listening to each other. My pictures show much more than the tweeted photos that Belle had been taking during the day. Actually, I was quite pleased with some of the portraits I had taken. I was feeling better about my Custard Factory experience; I had something positive to show for it. And after all, hadn’t I said to myself early that morning that I wanted to do more portrait photography. But not, it seems, was this going to be with a studio set up, but instead I would be doing it live in a situation over which I had little control. I’d got what I wanted, and as usual, in a form that took me by surprise. I got it – upon reflection. I get it. This is what I do.

© 2017 Peter Young

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Rubbish

A true story. This happened last Saturday. I’d just got back from a shopping expedition, and was getting out of my car when my neighbour from across the road – whom I don’t know – came across to me. She started the conversation with “Did you put your rubbish in my wheelie-bin on Thursday?” To which I could only reply, “Yes, I did.”
Each household in Worcester is allocated two wheelie-bins – one green one for recyclable materials, and a black one for anything not recyclable. It takes me a while to fill the green bin, and far, far longer to collect enough non-recyclable stuff – most of which is vacuum cleaner fluff and pistachio shells which won’t compost down. So every couple of months or so, I have accumulated a small plastic bag of rubbish. Instead of putting this in my black wheelie-bin (which has, in any case, a broken handle and serves as a ‘garden store’ in the back garden) and not wishing to leave the bag lying on the pavement, I search out the nearest black wheelie-bin put out by a neighbour. It seems neater that way, and it saves the bin man from having to bend down. Last Thursday the nearest bin was across the road.
“I don’t want you putting your rubbish in my black wheelie-bin.”
“Because …?”
“It’s my wheelie-bin. I pay my council tax and I have my own black wheelie-bin. I’m very careful what I put in it. I put my rubbish in my wheelie-bin, and I don’t want your rubbish in with my rubbish. So don’t put any more of your rubbish in my wheelie-bin!”
“I certainly won’t.”
Conversation ends. Injured party returns to house.
Now even though I’ve lived here for nearly 3½ years, I have never got to know the people opposite. Hardly ever see them, wouldn’t recognise them in the street. And I don’t think I’ll make the effort to change this relationship …

© 2017 Peter Young

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An Evening with the Photograph Album

Looking through my rectangulated life in photographs, at the attempts to record something significant about who I have become, I recall many experiments and many failures! Yet, emerging from all of these snapshots, I realise that there is no definitive description of the photographer.

I changed as the light changed, my moods as variable as the weather. There were times when I photographed the weather: a startling sunrise, an odd-shaped cloud, or con-trails reticulating the sky. But there was no way in which these reflected my mood at the time; dark moods did not lead to dark photographs. More outward looking, I sought an understanding of the unnoticed. I would focus on a detail not spotted before, or an odd juxtaposition would catch my eye, and my camera would catch one small part of that.

The photographs have left a trail, and I can see where I have been at different times. Other countries, and frequently the same places at different times. All have the effect of drawing me back to those locations. Memories that have been shut away for years suddenly take flight and overlay my current reality. “Oh yes, I remember …” or “I’d forgotten about that” as I notice a unrecognised face or relationship tickling or niggling at the back of my mind. I guess that each changed me in some fractional way, building layer upon layer, adding to ‘experience’ – from which might emerge some notion of identity. Instead, I see a persona lost in the busyness of catching the light or attending a decisive moment – which, truth be told, probably had little effect on what followed, but left me wondering about the decisions I was yet to make.

The impossibility of deciding who I am lies revealed in these photographs, because I have been all those people in my album, sometimes pretending, sometimes serious. It’s only looking back that I can see any kind of story, and a garbled one at that. Best not to bother; let the photographs speak for themselves. Let me marvel at those ‘little did I know’ occasions which have grown into meaningful action, but at the time were probably more about alleviating boredom, looking for excitement, or just plain getting on with life.

In trying to pin down a narrative, I see that I have been engaged in constructing a composite picture of a life that at first sight seems to centre around me as the hero, but more honestly gives me the sense of being one of the cast of thousands, an extra brought in for a specific scene, then sent off to wait for the next walk-on part in another scene.

Peel back each layer, let your imagination loose – and it will want to know, want to find a meaning, interpret that event and those people. But searching for some definition it soon becomes tedious: a visible jumble of good intent but of ignorant bumbling. So time to put the photographs away and set off on the journey that starts from here and now, remembering to keep my eyes open and take more pictures of the infinite complexity of the texture of life.

© 2017 Peter Young

 

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Wilderness Seat

Wilderness Seat

The seat where we once sat together, contemplating an expansive future,
Is now bare-bones cold in a winter landscape that fades into mist.
The half-remembered hot summers lie buried under the leaves of autumn.
Yet, in this Wilderness, the shoots of a new Spring are already pushing through.

© 2017 Peter Young

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