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Ptolemy Mann – Weaver

craft

Ptolemy Mann is an extremely skilled weaver, artist and colour consultant and  she makes both pieces of cloth and woven art.  She trained at the Royal College of Art and has since exhibited widely as well as producing many commission pieces.

Ptolemy’s process, is complex. It starts with the winding of the warp: laying out the individual strands of the cloth that run from top to bottom.   Next the plaited warp is dyed: Ptolemy uses multiple dye baths that produce vivid colours and gorgeous transitions between colour on the warp.

Next the warp is strung onto the loom in a process that can take several days. Then, finally the weaving itself can begin….

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Wim Wenders & Tokyo-Ga

documentaries

Tokyo Ga is Wim Wender’s homage to his favourite film director, Ozu, who amongst over 40 films made the classic Tokyo Story. Ostensibly, it’s shot as a journey to Tokyo in search of the people and places Ozu featured in his films but it quickly become an examination of the role of image making and story telling in modern life. Wenders is concerned with the lack of what he calls ‘the real’ in film and  speculates that it’s only present in the occasional flash of a bird through the back of frame or an unruly child in a sequence.

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Shot in 1983, 20 years after Ozu died in 1963 and viewed in 2013, the film has an air of archaeology about it, as Wenders examines the city he came to know through the films of his hero. Indeed, in one telling scene, Wenders interviews his friend Werner Herzog, who complains that there are no pure images left, that one must be an archaeologist to find images amongst the buildings.

Tokyo Ga makes exceptional use of metaphor to promote the underlying meaning of the film, which is about the use of image and film in a society that’s saturated with TV, advertising and films. Right from the start, Wenders is trying to understand why in a society that’s obsessed with images, they have started to lose their meaning. On the flight to Tokyo, he turns away from the in-flight movie – he calls it empty and flickering, to gaze out of the window and muse that he’d love to be able to dream images onto film. And then in a taxi or his hotel room he marvels and despairs about the constant flood of film, adverts and images that flow from the TV screen and in parks, cemeteries and on train platforms he notes the compulsive way that we photograph and record things.

Through a small number of interviews with Ozu’s collaborators and a series of metaphorical sequences in pachinko parlours, golf driving ranges and even a workshop where strikingly accurate wax copies of restaurant dishes are made, he questions the way that we have made a fetish of moving image – that in modern life it very often stands for something else, something to occupy our minds or our time without thought, effort or attention.

He returns several times to a pachinko parlour and his camera observes the salary men staring blankly at the tiny balls that bounce randomly around the board, an activity devoid of skill or meaning that simply fills time and diverts the mind. The analogy with television is too obvious for him to make explicit and the scene is stronger for that.

Wenders also spends a day at a golf driving range, watching dozens upon dozens of people as they hit balls at small targets or into the nets at the end of the artificial fairway. Wenders allows the camera to linger on a solitary putting green and muses that the driving range has stripped the action of it’s meaning – to put a ball in the hole – and rendered only into a  form that’s obsessed with the form itself – striking the ball. A powerfully oblique metaphor in an industry that’s been reduced to the creation of mere content, where film makers, writers and creatives are churning out material to fill the websites and channels of brands and advertisers.

And finally at the wax workshop, the focus is the painstaking and time consuming manufacture of replica food and he notes that the method and the time frame is almost identical to making the real thing.  For anyone who’s spent time in an edit suite, slowly assembling material to show ‘real life’, the analogy and the ultimate futility of the process is almost too painful to watch.

Set against these painful metaphors are two detailed and sometimes un-comfortable to watch interviews with Ozu’s long time collaborators –  actor, Chishu Ryu and  camera man, Yuharu Atsuta. Both men are modest in the extreme.WIth Ryu detailing how in one instance he took 20 rehearsals and 20 takes to get a scene right: concluding that he must be among the least talented actors. And Atsuta explaining he spent 15 years as Ozu’s assistant cameraman before becoming a full cameraman and concluding that to have served Ozu was his life’s work.  Both men outline the extraordinary control and attention to detail that Ozu took: he arranged everything in a scene, choosing and composing the shots and then locking the camera in position before each scene was shot. The memories are too much for Atsuta to bear and he breaks down in tears at the end of the interview and begs to be left alone with his loneliness. Extraordinarily moving.

It’s the combination of these rather bleak metaphorical sequences with two powerful interviews that gives Wender’s film its power. Concentrating simply on the form – golf: or the facsimile of real life – the waxworks; or simply filling the mind –  pachinko: is simply not enough. But bring those skills and commitment to an art form along with meaning and intention – in Ozu’s case the  repeating  but changing narratives of Japanese family life and the city of Tokyo – and you have the potential to create extraordinary pieces of art.

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saturday on the overground

Overground

At the weekend, the overland trains have a completely different atmosphere and are used in a totally different way. During the week, they shift 100,000s of commuters into the city from the suburbs and then back home again in the evening. At the weekend, the overground can be almost deserted with a few dozen people heading off to visit friends or heading to the local shops. It can be very mellow and gently soporific, gliding gently and quietly between stations, no rushing or pushing, glimpses into people’s back gardens or the rear of their houses, elevated views of suburban London, and new views of the city.

A couple of weekends ago, I spent a few hours riding a loop of the Thameslink overground line that starts from my local station and heads south to Sutton and Wimbledon, before returning northwards and ultimately arriving at St Albans. People were day dreaming, talking on the their phones and being generally quiet and peaceful. At each station perhaps one or two people got on or off from my carriage and I took some decent shots of people dozing or in one case two jolly ladies waving off a friend.

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But then the peace of the carriage was disrupted by two young boys, they hurled themselves into the carriage and began taunting a large group of much larger boys on the opposite platform. The older boys seemed more amused than offended and the two young lads seemed good natured too.

 

Then the small one began to dare the larger of the two to slap him, to take it in turns to hit each other.  Within a few moments it was clear that the smaller boy was really going for the big one, who put up with a couple of slaps and punches before he began to put his weight into it too.

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They quickly became a whirl of fists and slaps that lasted a few moments before they spotted me and turned and fixed me with an intimidating glare: well, as intimidating as a 12 year boy can be to a 6’5″ 200lb 46 year old…

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At the next station they hopped off and ran by my window with a cheeky smile, leaving me to take some of the landscape shots I’d set off to take.

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3 great documentaries about photographers

documentaries

I’m always interested in films about photographers: I love to see how people work and to learn about their process. I also enjoy the cross over between two mediums that I work in – photography and documentary film making.

In the last year or so I’ve seen several good docs about photographers but the best three for me have been:

McCullin – a feature length film about the great war and documentary photographer

Bill Cunningham – another feature length film about the New York Times street fashion photographer

In No Great Hurry – a meditation on the life and work of influential colour pioneer, Saul Leiter.

All of these films seem to be passion pictures – they’ve been made by fans or admirers of the photographers and they’ve been made without the support of broadcaster’s money and with minimal investment. In all 3 cases the film makers have exchanged the luxury of cash for the luxury of freedom. Each of them experiments with the form of documentary and each of them counts on the attention and interest of their audience, focusing to various degrees of intensity on their subjects.

Of the three films, Bill Cunningham is the most conventional: it uses the device of observational footage of him going about his daily life to introduce themes and events from his life which are illustrated by interviews with collaborators and influential people who’ve worked with him over the years. We end up with a beautiful portrait of a charming yet curmudgeonly man, who has refused to compromise or cash in on his position – at several points in the film Bill Cunningham states that if you take their money, then they own you. The focus of the film is assuredly Cunningham himself and it’s not constrained by artificial story points or moments of manufactured drama.

The other 2 films are braver still, severely limiting the number of contributors and interviewees, allowing the subjects to speak for themselves and to unfold the story at their own pace.

McCullin has only two contributors, Don McCullin himself and Harold Evans, editor of the Sunday Times during McCullin’s time there. Even those interviews are kept to the most simple and direct: McCullin is seen in only 2 or 3 set ups and Evans only once. There’s minimal observational footage – McCullin choosing and copying his pictures that are to be used in the film plus a few other sequences.  The result is a powerfully direct film that allows the voice of the subject to come through with minimal intervention from the director, powerful story telling. McCullin ends up as a clear and moving account of the photographer’s work and his views on his profession, journalism and ultimately, humanity.

In No Great Hurry, is even braver, not just in style but in content and message. Made by photographer, Thomas Leach, it starts out with a conventional TV mission – to convince us that Saul is the great forgotten master of photography – but very quickly the cleverness of the director and the subtly of the story telling is made apparent. We see a few conventional set ups  – Saul Leiter out and about with his camera, Saul at his printer’s or Saul looking through old photos – but Thomas soon allows Saul to knock these conventions aside, and the majority of the film is Leiter sitting in various chairs, talking to camera or to the director: direct, clear communication.  As the story unfolds in its 13 chapters, we learn that Leiter is clearing an appartment, that he’s lived in this building since the 50’s, and finally, that it’s the apartment of his partner who died some years ago. Gently Leiter, pushes aside comparisons with other photographers, and lets us know that he’s unconcerned with his place in the canon. And finally, in a devastatingly simple sentence, declares that photography, a place in history, a life’s work, is as nothing compared with the love and friendship of a beloved partner. A beautiful film.

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sour dough

bread

Over the years I’ve spent hours trying to make the perfect sour dough loaf and I’ve tried lots of different methods of growing a starter, keeping it alive and then baking with it. I’ve gradually simplified a method that seems to work for me, pretty much everytime.

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GROWING A STARTER

There are so many different methods written about, some  – Dan Lepard, River Cottage and Moro – favour kicking things off with a few grapes in the mixture (to make the most of the natural yeasts on their waxy skin). Others insist on organic flour, boiled water and tricky mixes – Linda Collister. I’ve found that the simplest way is best and that I can have a starter frothing and ready to bake in around 5 or 6 days.

Rye flour seems to be the best to start things off with – it seems to be high in the natural yeasts and bacteria that get things moving and also high in natural sugars to feed the colony. I use  a 50/50 mix of flour and water, straight from the tap and perhaps warmed with a little hot from the kettle if it’s a really cold day. Mix into a gloopy paste, cover and leave to sit for 4-5 days.

DIFFERENT FLOURS

You can grow and maintain a different starter for each different flour variety that you like to bake with. Some of my friends have a starter for rye and a starter for white but I’ve found it easier to maintain a single starter and then add whichever flour I’m going to bake with to the pre-dough sponge. Sometimes I gradually change the starter adding white flour to a rye one for a few feeds and vice versa.  When you add a different type of flour, it seems to take a few days to return to full vigour: I presume that this is because you’re introducing new and unfamiliar bacteria and yeasts to the starter and an equilibrium needs to be re-established.

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FEEDING

When it’s good and frothy, your starter is ready for its first feed. Stir in equal quantities of flour and water and again leave for a day or two. I’m always surprised that a lively looking starter will go very still and quiet after its first feed but don’t worry, the fledgling bacterial and yeast colonies are simply adjusting to new strains that have been introduced in the flour and breaking down the flour into the sugars they feed off.

The starter is actually a colony of several different strains of bacteria and yeasts and it’s the balance of their sour by products that gives each sour dough its unique taste. I notice a difference in smell and taste according to how recently the starter has been fed – longer gap equals stronger taste – or whether it’s been kept in the fridge or work top.

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The starter after 4 or 5 days, ready for its first feed.

BAKING

Again many of the cook books have arcane or complicated rituals for the process of baking with a sour dough starter – especially the Moro cook book. But they all boil down to the same 2 ideas – giving the natural yeasts time to multiply and give off their wonderful flavours in the process, and secondly, standardising your method so you can repeat it, time and again with good results.

I’ve found that it takes 24 or even 36 hours from preparing the starter to taking a loaf out of the oven. Sounds like a long time, and if you’re dying for a slice of crusty, tangy toast, then it is an age. But it just means planning ahead and getting started with your next loaf while you’re still feasting off the first.

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A good and frothy, lively starter.

First, feed up your starter – you want a lively, healthy starter and I find that mine is best for baking 8-10 hours after a feed. I give the starter 100g of flour and 100g of water, the night before I want to start baking. In the morning, the starter should be frothy and lively.

THE SPONGE

Take 250g of starter and add 350g of whichever combination of flours you want to use. I find that a mix of something tasty – rye or wholemeal plus something white and strong works best. Sour dough baking produces a very soft and flexible dough that will spread rather than rise if you don’t use something with a lot of gluten. Add 350g of cold water. Mix and leave to stand until it’s full of bubbles and has risen nicely. In cold weather this can take 4-5 hours – it’s worth it though because all this time lovely flavour is developing.

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Sponge on the left and sourdough starter centre. Pizza dough on the right

THE DOUGH

To the sponge add another 425 of flour – I use something like strong white to give it a real boost of gluten, and 250g of water and 20g of salt (you only add the salt at this stage because it retards the activity of the yeasts in the sponge). Mix and knead well for 10-15 mins.  Let it prove until at least doubled in size. Divide in 2, shape and place in proving baskets: I leave mine in the fridge overnight.

Adding flour, salt and water to the sponge.

Adding flour, salt and water to the sponge.

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Fluffy, well proved dough, ready for the oven.

Tip out onto a hot baking tray, slash the tops and bake at around 220c for 40-45 mins.

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