Saturday, 14 February 2015


When I was a child I saved up my pocket money and bought my first camera, a Kodak Brownie 127.  I still have the photographs I took with that camera - black and white to start with, then, when the film became cheaper, colour prints.  Eventually I graduated to an SLR and enjoyed playing with light and distance, focus and perspective.  But the camera and lenses were cumbersome.  Now I have a digital camera that fits in my pocket.

The word photograph means light-writing.  It was not until my first collection was reviewed that I realised how much I respond to the visual as a writer.  That's why it's been such a pleasure to work with photographer, Horatio Lawson, on our collaboration Out of Time.  Ansel Adams said, "There are always two people in every picture, the photographer and the viewer".  Very early on I realised that the "you" in the poems I was writing was the photographer.  I was the viewer, responding to the image in words.  But we also worked the other way round - I wrote some poems and Horatio provided the images to go with them.

We are both grateful to Mick North who published a selection of photographs with their accompanying poems in The Fire Crane and who suggested the title Out of Time.  The phrase comes from my poem "An Absence of Trains":  "Your lens does not speak of the past or the future, only / the silence of the shadowless present, the moment out of time".  I was thinking of Four Quartets when I was writing this poem, particularly the lines in "The Dry Salvages": "For most of us, there is only the unattended / moment, the moment in and out of time."

It is a commonplace to say that a photograph freezes time - and sometimes it does.  In "From the sky's loft you stop the city" I was writing a poem to accompany a dramatic picture taken from high up in a church tower.  All the frenetic activity of urban life stopped for a split second.  Then "the city gives a wet dog shake, moves on."

But I think a photograph may also take the object photographed out of the time spectrum altogether, out of the relentless mutability of life.  In my blog post of 15 September last year ("12 km White Balloons") I wrote about meeting Jurgen in Kiel.  At the end of the Second World War he and his family had fled from Danzig (Gdansk) ahead of the Soviet troops.  Their only possessions were their clothes and a photograph album.  What a frisson of excitement I felt when Jurgen put that same album into my hands.  The photographs enabled him to return to that place over and over again, undisturbed by the changes time had wrought - the family home converted into flats, new buildings in the fields, the years of Communist rule and the collapse of the Soviet Union.  A photograph can transcend time, while also itself being subject to it.

My great grandfather started a wholesale stationery and printing business (JFA Ball) in Birmingham in the early years of the 20th century.  He was a pioneer of commercial colour printing.  The archives department of the new Library of Birmingham found me a photograph of his premises on the corner of Masshouse Lane and Jennens Row - a solid Victorian brick building.    They emailed me a link to it - a digital image of an old black and white photograph.  I felt as if time's barrier had collapsed.

We are bombarded, bamboozled even, by multiple images and sounds.  Sometimes we need to concentrate on one image and make space around it, or one sound and make silence round it.

(Out of Time exhibition - see details under Events on the right)

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