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Wednesday, February 27

Placing the V&A in context

‘Dundee’s setting is probably more extraordinary than any other city in the UK. It is about as ideal – ludicrously ideal – as any setting could be.’

Those are the words of actor, comedian and writer Stephen Fry, not exactly my favourite "celebrity" but, still, he got it right on that score. Dundee sits on Scotland's longest river and the one with the largest flow of any in Britain, the Tay.

The city's waterfront was once a jumble of old docks, sheds, 19th century buildings and atmosphere - it had the last in spades. Then came the 1960s, in my opinion the worst decade of the lot. Anything old was torn down to make way for some of the ugliest architecture man has ever devised, really brutal, disgusting buildings that shame their "architects" who were so obsessed with fashion that they threw style out of the window.

This aesthetic defenestration seemed to hit Dundee harder than most cities of its size and it left the place looking a right mess for decades. This partly contributed to a reputation for being a "hard" place, something Phil Rogers likes to exaggerate out of all proportion as he plots his escape to the safer streets of downtown Mogadishu.

Slowly, however, Dundee is regaining the confidence of old, helped by a £1 billion regeneration of the aforementioned waterfront, the star of which is Kengo Kuma's V&A design museum which opened last year.

The V&A has proved to be a very popular attraction with hordes of tourists visiting it over the winter months since its opening. I didn't poke my nose around the front door until last week, though, preferring to let a bit of the fuss die down so I could have some peace and quiet to take it in.

I needn't have bothered waiting as it was still bethronged by thronging multitudes. It was nice to see the venture doing well but, to be honest, there isn't a lot to interest me within its striking walls. "Design" isn't my thing - fabrics, furniture, that sort of thing. If I want that there's always Ikea. Haha. I love the exterior of the building and the inside is nice as well but it's unfortunate that I found the people there a lot more interesting than the exhibits.

I'd have loved for part of it to have been kept as Scotland's Photography Museum along the lines of the Bradford media museum. I never get to see any famous exhibitions unless I can be bothered travelling a hundred miles or three. An international class venue on my doorstep would have been fantastic but it seems there's more demand for Charles Rennie Mackintosh than David Douglas Duncan - or at least that's what the V&A thinks. I beg to differ.

St Paul's Cathedral seen between the exit ramps from the road bridge.

A couple of tourists enjoying a riverside stroll in the winter sunshine.

Anyway, the point of this post is that I had a couple of hours to spare and decided to have a walk along the waterfront past the V&A to see if I could capture a different image of it from those I've seen online. Most of the pics I've noticed have been garish, over-saturated digital things. That's not an indictment of digital photography so much as it is a criticism of the taste of some of the people behind the pixel capturers. But then, no doubt they'd think my pics are under-saturated - and I can't argue against that!

I shot off a roll of HP5 but there weren't too many interesting images. Some looked more like straightforward record shots of the V&A, which is what they were I suppose. I've included a couple of the more interesting ones in this post along with a couple of boring ones. Your task is to figure out which is which.

The first pic on this page was a grab shot and the last exposure on the roll. I had the Contax 137 MA with me and had been checking out this view of the museum through a 100mm Sonnar lens but wasn't sufficiently moved to click the shutter.

Then, just after I'd put everything away in my bag, I saw the plane heading for the airport which lies further west along the Tay. I just managed to get the camera to my eye using the focus and exposure setting I'd been toying with earlier and take a single shot. The composition was a bit rushed as a result. That's the full frame below. It's not too bad but I prefer the more dramatic crop at the top of the post.

The second pic of the V&A places it between Dundee's two bridges. The bridge in the background is the rail bridge whilst the top half of the frame is filled with the underside of the road bridge. The rail bridge - proper name, The Tay Bridge -  fell down with great loss of life in 1879 when its central supports failed in a storm and a train heading to Dundee plunged into the icy water. Incidentally, I happened to be on a train heading in the opposite direction exactly 100 years to the day later and remember wondering what the chances were of lightening striking twice, so to speak. Fortunately, it didn't and I'm here to tell the tale. The road bridge, for the sake of completion, opened in 1966 - the same year, apparently, that England won some some small football tournament in their own backyard.

This view of the V&A shows the ship's bow profile that the architect was keen to pick up on, given Dundee's shipbuilding heritage and the fact it's right next to Captain Robert Falcon Scott's RRS Discovery, built just a few hundred yards away in the city's docks by the Dundee Shipbuilding Company. Scott's Terra Nova ship, which conveyed him to Antarctica for his final, ill-fated voyage, was also built at the yard.

I tired pretty quickly of trying to do something clever with the museum and poked a lens - the same Sonnar - at the road bridge instead. It was a lovely afternoon and the water was very calm and reflective - a bit like myself on that day. A weak sun was shining on the water but in a very subtle way - you can just see its presence around the pier of the road bridge and the supports of the rail bridge in the background in the pics below.

The first of these was the one I "timed" best. I took about 15 shots in total of various vehicles crossing the bridge but it was tricky capturing them at just the right place. That place was squarely atop the pier and the only one that was spot on was the photo featuring a single deck bus. There's a nice reflection of the sun on the top of the bus.

Now, if I could have grabbed a pic of the double deck bus in exactly the same spot I'd have been happy but, as you can see below, I was just a little too hasty with the old trigger finger. The pic doesn't appear well-balanced to me but it's not too bad I suppose. 

I should say a little bit about the film and developer here. It was HP5 done in Fotospeed's FD10. The combination is very nice in my opinion. In fact, it's the best I've managed to get HP5 to look. The negatives were tonally on the money and grain is well controlled. I've found that grain can sometimes get a little out of hand with HP5 but it's just where I'd like it to be with FD10,

I'd been meaning to try FD10 for a while as I had a hunch it might be what I was looking for. It's cheap for a start! I'd actually been put off by the experience of a FADU member who had problems with it but the more I read the more I realised those issues were peculiar to that individual and almost certainly, in my opinion, user error. I'm glad I decided to give it a whirl.


DavidM said...

Well done. A nice set of images.
I'm sure exhibitions will come along that are closer to your taste. They might do James Clerk Maxwell, an important Scottish contributor to photography, or Hill and Adamson. You will have your own favourites, no doubt.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Well as an 'Adopted' Dundonian, can I just say to folks the 'hard' reputation (and it was one) was real as far as I was concerned, and speaking to people who were actually from here and from the times, they've said it as well.
It isn't the case these days - tis more like (in places) the guy with the ponytail from The Fast Show (Chris The Crafty Cockney) - You Tube him - it'll make you laugh. Nah, just joking - it certainly needs more attractive shopping and things to visit, but this is all a move in a positive direction from some truly shocking brutalisation.

Anyway, no matter how me and Bruce differ, we're of one mind, the V&A is a really beautiful building in an extraordinary setting - William McGonagall didn't call it The Silvery Tay for nothing - it is and it sets the V&A in its place. I enjoyed the exhibits - there could be more, but this is a museum that has just opened - these things take their time, however Bruce is right - they need permanent photography exhibitions - there's not a mention of Joseph McKenzie for instance, another adopted native and father of modern Scottish photography. With the historical home of pioneers Hill and Adamson a mere 12-odd miles away in St Andrews, something should be done to redress this . . .

As for the photos Bruce - yep - I like them - the combo of film and developer (and your skills) has captured the sometimes harsh, sometimes soft and silvery, light, beautifully -well done - you've made the place look beautiful.

Herman Sheephouse said...

And I meant to say - James Clerk Maxwell - the word genius gets bandied about a lot, but (though I'm sure he'd disagree if he were still alive) but he was - he also (with Thomas Sutton) made the world's first colour photograph in 1861:

I could go on about him actually, but suffice to say Einstein said he was 'standing on his shoulders' and that's enough.
Well worth visiting his grave if you are ever in the South Of Scotland, or even the small museum in Edinburgh:

DavidM said...

The V&A in Kensington has a refurbished permanent Photography Gallery which full of good stuff, including a WHFT mousetrap. (Incidentally, no tripods for Mr Talbot).There is some commissioned modern work (presumably for balance) and it certainly take up space on the wall.
No reason not to mount an exhibition in Caledonia that I can see. Perhaps it's all in the planning stage or awaiting an assessment of the response of Dundonians. (Is that the word, or are they called Cakies or something equally witty?)
Who knows, they might even be open to proposals for an exhibition of work by notable residents.

And yes, the more you find out about JCM, the more astonishing he becomes. We seem to have lost the knack of producing intellectual giants. This might be my pre-coffee pessimism speaking. Future generations may look back and see more.

Amidst today's incomprehensible shenanigans we might remember that we owe the V&A (among other things) to the work of an immigrant.

Bruce Robbins said...

Immigrant? Do you mean the German royal family? I think their arrival was only a very short step from usurpation and rather a long way from immigration. When it comes to the royals, I'm with our republican cousins across the water. :)

It would be great if the Dundee side of things morphed into a photographic gallery of some sort but I can't see it. However, if you check out comments about the V&A on the likes of Tripadvisor you'll find a lot of people who were disappointed with what they saw during their visit so you never know. Maybe declining visitor numbers would force them to consider a more popular use for at least part of the building.

Good idea, though, about local pressure possibly being applied to hurry things along. Dundoninans (that's the word right enough) should start agitating for some recognition for Joseph McKenzie. Why not have a gallery with a permanent exhibition of his work augmented by travelling exhibitions?

DavidM said...

When you say German, I think you must mean Hanoverian. And you're forgetting the Dutch William and Mary. ...and the French William. ...and the Danish Offa ...and even the Scottish James. We got our own back by repopulating the royal houses of Europe with Queen Victoria's children.
I meant Albert, the "A" of V&A.

(A modest political note: If we were founding a state from the beginning, we wouldn't would devise our present system of monarchy, but it does seem to work in practice. Constitutional monarchy seems to produce stable and peaceful nations. If we espouse the will of the people, then 82% approval of HM seems pretty convincing. Our republican cousins seem to like the royals so much that they sent one over to marry into them.
Our problems come from lower down, from the pernicious grasp of the party system and its intransigent special interest groups. I refer you to any newspaper or broadcast over the last two years to demonstrate the point. We may disagree on many things, but I doubt if anyone could disagree that it's been a disgraceful shambles. I have no solution to offer here.)

Please delete this with my blessing if it oversteps the limits of discussing film and darkroom practice.

DavidM said...

I've been looking at your pictures again and there's something that makes me curious. The first image, with the V&A and the aircraft, is cropped and I agree that the crop is better.
On the other hand, when I look at it my mind says "cropped" and this is a little impediment to my enjoyment. Do you think that this is because I'm familiar with film formats and consequently a bit more aware? Are some frame proportions better than others? Can it be that you rarely crop, so that this one stands out? I'm not sure at all.
When we used to view projected slides, any deviation was instantly obvious. Dead square seemed to be OK and so did "letterbox", (we obviously didn't know how to spell panorama then) but not tiny snips off the edges. Am I simply harking back to Ye Olde Kodachrome and Ye Olde Carousele?

Bruce Robbins said...

I'm not too fond of it either, David! I quite like letterbox crops but have never liked their vertical equivalent. The only way the vertical crops work for me is as part of a triptych. Being very much from the "I don't know much about art but I know what I like" school, I can't explain it beyond the fact that it just doesn't look right to me. I'll try not to do it again. :)

DavidM said...

There are whole systems devoted to proportion. Some shapes do seem easier on the eye, more comfortable, than others. Palladio and Le Corbusier's Modulor spring to mind, and we've all heard of the Golden Mean. You raise an interesting point about the difference between horizontal and vertical, that I've not seen before.
Sadly, we've all heard of The Rule of Thirds. If you take care to place something exactly on the thirds, it doesn't sit well at all. In the examples I've seen, some part of the object in question may overlap the crosshairs, but that's hardly a system. In practice it's The Rule Of A Bit Off Centre But Not Too Much.
I may have been dragged off-topic by my rampant hobby-horse.