John Heseltine Photographics

observations of the everyday and all that might be implied

The Festival of La Salute, Venice.

 

Salute Festival, Venice

The Festival of La Salute (Festa della Madonna della Salute) takes place on the 21st of November and celebrates one of the most important religious festivals in Venice. It commemorates the miraculous end of the catastrophic plague of 1631 and takes place at the Basilica Santa Maria della Salute, a substantial Baroque edifice which was completed in 1687 by the architect Longhena to mark the occasion. This is one of the city’s best loved churches located at the eastern tip of Dorsoduro, with the huge bulk of its dome visible from the waterfront at San Marco.

No medicines existed to halt this particular bubonic plague and a third of the city’s population died, but it is said that instead it was a votive procession by most of the remaining citizens that had the desired effect and the reigning Doge honoured an oath to build a beautiful church in gratitude to the Virgin. Since that time, on the same day every year, an almost continuous procession of Venetians has moved from the Piazza San Marco area to the La Salute using a temporary pontoon bridge constructed over the Grand Canal from Santa Maria del Giglio. Once over the bridge there are stalls selling candles and other religious paraphernalia and gradually throughout the day thousands enter the church to light these candles as a reminder of the procession made for three days and nights nearly 400 years ago as well as in prayer for good health in the future. Once all thoughts of plague have been banished, the festivities continue behind in the Campo della Salute which is taken over by stalls selling frittelle (pastries), candyfloss, torrone (nougat) and toys. Afterwards most Venetians head home for the traditional dish of castradina (stewed mutton with polenta).

 

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Salute Festival, Venice

Salute Festival, Venice

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These and many other images can be found in my archive

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Field of Dreams

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Although it is happening elsewhere in the world it is particularly striking how on the edges of towns and villages all over France the surrounding landscape is being transformed by new housing developments. This périurbanisation, or dispersive urban growth, is also known as éparpillement or the scattering of bungalows or pavillons which vary little in size or shape, aesthetically being based on the harmonious proportions of a shoe box. Every community seems to be sub-dividing and offering lotissements, or building plots to accommodate this particular style of dwelling. And so a field becomes a place where homes appear as quickly as nomads setting up camp in the desert so that residents can continue life behind tall gates and barred windows and perhaps dream, propagate families and personalize their indoor and outdoor spaces using cheap merchandise from the local DIY store.

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I am aware of the pressing realities behind this trend but when a field two miles from here was ravaged in this way I felt a need to employ the destructive character of these Polaroid images as my personal wrecking ball. Similar low-cost houses have been blooming in green field sites for decades but rarely at the present rate and with such a violation of the landscape and attending cheapness of materials, meanness of design, paucity of garden space, such proximity to neighbours and emphasis on garage space to house the other crucial trapping of modern life. The end result is depressing to behold and is unlikely to promote an uplifting living experience for present and future inhabitants as the suburban myth spreads to semi-rural areas with all the negative implications of the word which describes more than just architecture. Visually and sociologically these monotonous buildings and tiny walled gardens are deliberately separated from the adjacent town, its social diversity and economic activities and represent a modern middle class vision of utopia, a mythical paradise reminiscent of the American Dream upon which these horizontally sprawling developments are based. It is sad both to identify this dream and to see the French landscape ravaged in this way.

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to see more images from this project go to :

http://www.johnheseltine.com/field_of_dreams/

Wasney’s War

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Do I spend too much time looking into the darkness that is half of our lives or is it only right to be attentive to the more shadowy parts of both our present and past ? Certainly just now, as so much is being written in commemoration of the First World War, there is little cause for brightness even if it might well be a time for succeeding generations to seek clarity wherever it can be found. My grandfather, William Wasney Heseltine, was gassed in the trenches of Northern France in the last weeks of the war and my eponymous father, born a few months before, never met his own father. Nor did he ever speak of him, he knew little of his war or his death and never visited his grave in Rouen. For me, another Wasney, the advent of the internet made it possible to trace the location of the cemetery and to track his artillery garrison as it edged across the muddy fields of Picardy in the autumn of 1918.

Was my coming to this part of France some sort of expiation for my grandfather’s death, some continuity, familiarity, recognition or understanding ? By making my home further southwest I had already felt I was joining my grandfather and swelling the population of Wasney Heseltines in France generally. The internet failed me when it came to tracking down the path of his particular unit, the entire British army seems traceable but not the details of this officer’s unit. I resorted to visiting one lonely small cemetery after another scouring the small collection of windy hilltop gravestones to find casualties belonging to the 284th Siege Battery of the Royal Garrison Artillery to track their progress by the the numbers of the dead they left in their wake. My grandfather was gassed and taken to a field hospital to die but it seemed that on the approximate day of his injury his unit were seeing action on the road to Montbrehain.

Of course there is little to actually see now but there is plenty to feel, ghosts are everywhere. The Aisne landscape is essentially the same albeit without the ghastly war torn character that is so familiar in the contemporary photographs of splintered trees, the soup of sodden earth, bodies and blood that constituted the uncertain ground. Instead, the ghostly November light illuminated endless piles of beet stacked up in the mist and everywhere the same terrible mud, the same sticky clay that smeared both the beet and the feet. These arable trophies were everywhere stacked up like skulls and bones exhumed from the mass grave that still offered up the dead a century later.

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Four wheel drive marmalade

 

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Here at Beaufief in southwest France, January is a time of unashamed domesticity. For a while I can lose my sense of guilt about absenting myself from the numerous regular hours spent in front of the computer and other routines of my working life. No, this is a time for adventures with the chain saw, for splitting logs, deluding myself that I am getting on top of the garden’s weed problem and for making marmalade. Now my own special marmalade has unique qualities, but I shall only reveal a few just now.

Firstly, it is important to buy the Seville oranges abroad, in my case in the UK, and then transport them a fair distance before cooking them, it is little known that they like to be in constant motion after picking. A ferry journey is essential for the next step which consists of allowing the fruit to spill out onto the car deck and settle for a short while under adjacent four wheel drive vehicles: Porsche Cayennes are ideal but Mercedes, BMWs, Audis etc work just as well. Gather up the oranges which will now be lightly coated with German 4WD differential oil and restore to the car to continue the rhythmic movement of an 8 hour voyage. This step also helps perpetuate the reputation Englishmen have as comedians, brightens the tedium of Brittany Ferries employees while also ensuring that other travelers on board will ignore you for the entire journey.

After a further journey by road, the raw ingredients are ready to be transformed into nectar, following my time-tested recipe which always ends with bringing the runny liquid to a boil for a second time and boiling furiously so that the maximum mess is made on the hob and all areas of the kitchen. The set can be monitored by sensing how sticky the tiled floor is becoming underfoot. Towards the end, add last year’s slightly loose left over jars of marmalade and continue boiling for a further ten minutes. The resulting confection has a rich dark colour, a perfect consistency and the slight overtones of vehicle lubricant and a nuance of Michelin all-terrain rubber, something that will linger on visitors’ taste buds for many months. It also means the entire kitchen has to be deep-cleaned leaving ready for the new year ahead.

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Armed Forces Memorial

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In 2007 I was commissioned to document the creation of the bronze sculpture for the Armed Forces Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum,  Alrewas near Lichfield in Staffordshire. The impressive memorial cost £6 million to build and features the epic bronzes designed and made by the UK sculptor Ian Rank-Broadley. The 16,000 names carved into the Portland stone is a vivid reminder of the sacrifices made by British service personnel since 1945. Sadder still, an area has been allocated for a further 15,000 names, a blank space for those who have not yet been killed.

In reviewing the images ready to upload to my Alamy collection, I have been reminded of my recent visit to the battlefields of Picardy where my grandfather was killed in 1918. The scale of the German cemetery at Maissemy, for instance, makes a vivid impression with a landscape of crosses reminding us of the 30,478 young bodies interred in just one place. But on a lonely and wet hillside a few miles away, a small collection of a dozen graves, buried in the mud where they fell, is an equally compelling message about the futility of war and the waste of English lives who in another time might well have become friends with their German contemporaries resting nearby. Memorials are essential as a reference point for those left behind but also a graphic reminder that war demands a high price of all involved.

A recent report by James A. Lucas claims that the United States seems likely to have been responsible for the deaths of between 20 and 30 million people in wars and conflicts scattered over 37 countries of the world since World War 2. In most of these confrontations the US has not acted alone and many British and European nations must share the responsibility. There will one day be memorials to the fallen in many of these places, but it is unlikely that individual names will be recorded, just the bare fact that so many more have died and that world peace is still no closer to reality.

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another horizon

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“Emigration, forced or chosen, across national frontiers or from village to metropolis, is the quintessential experience of our time” John Berger.

Just like migrating birds some humans are destined to move, more often than not this is enforced by political or economic pressures. But some are stateless by nature, by inheritance or circumstances, so moving with the wind is not such an odd thing to do. I find that my own birthplace means very little and the term ex-pat has no meaning at all. My heart sinks when someone asks me where I am from: Surrey does not summarize me. But many of us live in privileged times, relative wealth and low cost travel has fueled freedom of movement giving indulgence to an urge to live with another version of the horizon, to vary ones outlook by viewing the world from more than a single vantage point. People who traveled a lot in earlier life or perhaps like me spent much of their teens and twenties abroad can not claim to have shared the full national experience of their contemporaries so are always marked as outsiders when they rejoin the fold. I should have known this would be my destiny when I chose to do my MA under the late Professor Maldwyn Jones, the leading expert on American immigration in the 1970s. I investigated what people brought with them from abroad and how agencies attempted to reconfigure their cultural identities and turn them into fully Americanized citizens. I see now this interest echoed my own pledging of allegiance to the American flag in 1967. Am I still honour bound ?

To turn away from what we call our comfort zone: cultural conditioning, from the loving warmth of family, the familiar banter of friends, from national stereotypes and all that is as regular and as predictable as the morning radio news and adopt a country which will forever be foreign, neighbors almost strangers and a language which often falters may seem like an odd choice to undertake voluntarily. It is a fundamental disturbance, at odds with cosy certainty, with the notion of home being the focus, the centre from which we project our outward images. It seems to violate domesticity, but at the same time it can be seen as a search for the ultimate expression of it; to try and make oneself more comfortable both in mind and habitat. The process of migration or long-term travel can have its own positive story, one to suggest discontent, intention, purpose, even idealism. It is an action rather than stasis, movement as opposed to staying put. The migrant is obliged to observe different rules, to negotiate another language, to endure the isolation of a life in what sometimes seems to be exile, to be patient of bureaucratic processes, to expect the unexpected and greet a stranger with a kiss. The result is a modification, both culturally and psychologically, and is often ample reward for the confusion of identity. Moreover, the creative viewpoint is freed from many old distractions or boundaries and repositioned by the physical shift of detachment where it can offer an angle from which the old world comes into sharper focus – a narrower field of view to concentrate the gaze.

Ideally it might be best that politicians don’t follow the migratory path, they are needed back home (?) but it must be a positive thing for some of a country’s citizens to live elsewhere, maybe just to keep an eye on things from afar. Of old the attraction might have been splendid isolation to capture an unfamiliar place’s spirit in paint, to allow poetry to ferment lyrical uplifting or fragments of unprocessed thought and perhaps along with them insanity as well; heroic searches for the dark night of the soul, romantic notions of enlightenment, experience and maybe a different version of death. This may no longer be the motivating force, but as travelers or migrants we are pleased to find new metaphors to stand in for the old ones, unfamiliar approximations that have a slightly exotic flavor and are more satisfying to use. The physical environment offers a distinctly new vocabulary that is etched in a subtly different light giving renewed inspiration to tired eyes.

A Pigeonnier is the ideal building to have for traveling birds when they finally rest from flight.

©John Heseltine 2013

Casting Brilliance: Glass by Colin Reid

Large prints from my photographic commission to document the working practices of prominent glass sculptor Colin Reid are on view at The Wilson,  the stunning new premises of The Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum. Shown alongside an impressive range of glass from Colin’s 30 year career, the prints offer an insight into his craft as well as the tactile and experimental nature of the process.

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Paris: this is then, that was now

2 quai des Célestins, Paris, France

For the last three decades I have been able to roam quite freely, changing cities, swapping landscapes, varying the backdrop to my life, my hopes and searches. And now I find myself returning to locations which somehow seem very familiar, just as they did quite a few years ago. But places frequently change more than I realize, just as my memory is more unreliable than than I sometimes like to think. In cities the old buildings alter imperceptibly, new ones rear up alongside, the shops change their names, the restaurants recast their images, new technology has intervened everywhere, young people wear very different clothes, the old people have died and been replaced with a new generation of elderly. And as a photographer, a flâneur, my point of view has changed, what interests me is no longer the same, just as how I use a camera is different.

“So what ?” was a comment by a photographer friend while I was holding forth on this subject and maybe all this states the obvious too compellingly, but I still feel myself wondering which of all the above has changed most. Here photography offers an insight as well as a unique tool to provide a relatively objective record of past experience and a way of juxtaposing earlier impressions of a place with more recent ones. Paris is a case in point as I have visited frequently since the late 1970s and photographed it in some detail in the early 80s, 90s as well as during more recent years and the pace of change seems relatively incremental compared to other great cities. The place still confers a great sense of warmth as well as a feeling of familiarity and in general it all seems to look very much as it did. And yet when I look at the photographs after more recent visits I am struck as much by the differences as the similarities and I am led to wonder whether the place has changed more than I realized, my previous recollections were more distorted or I am now seeing things more clearly. One thing is certain, my memory may have been sullied but the buildings have definitely been cleaned.

an empty room: 9/11


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…poppies of early summer now seem so far gone, their frail petals long fallen in some distant empty room where bright light has eased into soft grey and cooler air blows all too soon…

Of French garlic, digital imagery and vinyl LPs … is it all too easy ?

 

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For many years I have used digital cameras for my commissioned work and have been relieved at how much easier it has made many aspects and relieved the stress of a lot of time and money riding on a few sheets of fragile film. But for my own projects I have felt digital photography is too easy, surely it should all seem harder and require more thought ? Aesthetically, the digital image which new powerful sensors encourage, squeaky clean with a wide dynamic range and little noise is not something I always admire although I have to admit to the freedom to experiment and monitor the results straight away is hard to overestimate. Even if it does mean endless hours of my life involve computers. But I like film grain, imperfection, surprises, interference just as I love my vast collection of vinyl LPs and you cannot beat the warmth they lend to the human voice and to acoustic instruments; but now and then my CDs come close enough, depending on the music and my mood. Can the same be said of digital imagery ?

I used to photograph fruit and vegetables frequently for my own interest and would use quite a bit of film and many hours on a single piece to try and achieve a satisfactory result. A week ago I bought a bulb of fresh garlic from my market at St Jean d’Angély just because they were so beautiful. It sat around in the kitchen sulking, waiting for its portrait to be taken and this morning, noticing it was extra moody and no longer quite as fresh I decided to make a photograph of it before putting it to a culinary use. Ten minutes with the camera and five minutes on the computer and, voila ! Well, actually I ended up redoing it three further times before I was happy and I used a lens that is as vintage as myself. But the total time spent was still a fraction of my film versions. Is it less worthwhile for the relatively brief period of time expended or for being created digitally ? I still can’t decide.