We were driving back from Ilkley with a clip full of ‘winter Wharfedale’ photos, many of which were destined be spoiled by the falling light along the riverbank or too ambitious in the first place.

In decades gone by, the pain wouldn’t only have been the attempt and failure, but the cost of paying to have them developed and copied to photo paper, only to consign most of them to the bin … with expensive regret.

Prior to the development of Manchester’s city centre tram service, which crosses forty miles in each direction: north-south and east-west, we would set off from our offices on Salford Quays to take our rolls of actual ‘negative’ film to one of a number of specialist high-street shops, only to repeat the journey for the collection of the finished prints a few days later.

It was a tiresome process. But when the results were good there was a great sense of elation as you held up that physical print that would, without doubt, be good enough to win a prize.


It’s the competition judge in the back of your mind – even if you choose to ignore him…

Back then, when you looked at the pile of rejects on your desk, next to a much smaller pile of possibly worthy shots, you had an instant visual indicator of how well you’d performed with that roll of film and your expensive SLR (single lens reflex) camera.

None of this was remotely digital, of course … well, the metering might have been.

It was common for expert photographers to urge us amateurs to take lots of shots so that we could learn by doing: both well and badly. And also learn by bending the rules – like occasionally shooting into the sun, rather than the conventional wisdom of following the brightest light rays to the subject.

All photographers have this rosy picture that their children and close friends will want to leaf though their photos when they’ve gone…

They won’t. The best thing you can do for them is to take out 90% and consign them to the actual or digital bin – or persuade the local history museum to take them. If you do this, then you have a chance that one or more of your descendants or close friends might enjoy looking at your structured memories…

Most of photography is very much of the now…and we need to be prepared to pass out of other people’s now in a clean and orderly way.

But back to our return journey to Kendal…

(Above: Gargrave by night; it’s clearly folly to shoot through a moving car’s windscreen, but the fuzziness can lend the effect of a painting rather than a photo)

Crossing through the pretty village of Gargrave on the outskirts of Skipton – one of the anchors points of the Yorkshire Dales, we tuned into a Radio 4 programme about the gradual handover of the stonemason’s craft to the architect.

Cosy in the car’s warm cabin, we listened as the quiet and intense ‘radio time’ passed in the company of Andrew Ziminski, the author of the book in the opening paragraph.

(Andrew Ziminski – Stonemason, historian and educator)

Ziminski is an authority on the history and significance of building in stone. His knowledge is respected internationally, and he lectures across Europe. His uniqueness is that he still works as a stonemason, and his special skills have been employed on many critical repair projects in stone.

(Above: Nature’s cycles are always the most beautiful and created order from apparent randomness)

Given that the master craftsmen in particular were often accomplished designers, architects and artists as much as they were artisans. He points out that, regardless of the fame of what they worked on, they were all engineers who spent years learning the technical skills needed for their craft.

One of his favourite tricks to immerse us in the world of the stonemason is to conduct a journey through time, and references two of his ‘perspective journeys’, the first of which examined the year through its festival holidays, ending on the Celtic festival of Samhain and the feast of All Saints – on 1st November.

Ziminski, who has a good eye for nature, can expressively describe the changing seasons in vivid detail.

House martins twitter as they close in on a condensing insect swarm, spiders spin webs around me as I sleep on site, and I am often to be found among bat roosts under bridges.

The second ‘time journey’ is one through the history of building with stone in the British Isles. It begins in a Neolithic chambered tomb and ends with the modern use of concrete.

In this way, Ziminski fills our imagination with the struggles and progress over a thousand years.

I’ll close this post with the two most dramatic perspectives that he gleaned from these time journeys:

In the first, he speaks of how, within a family of stonemasons, the father would begin the creation of the building. The son would continue the work but not see it completed. The grandson would be present at the grand opening and nurse it through the infancy of its use.

(Above: the main difference is, of course, modern and more flexible materials)

He contrasted this with the modern techniques of modular building and said that, by comparison in the world of the architects of today:

in the age of the modern architect, the building would be delivered by the architect; the ‘son’ would witness its decline, and the ‘grandson’ would see it demolished.

Two very different worlds… Perhaps it is no mystery that we return, time and again, to our favourite stone masterpieces in an increasingly transient world.

Photography is the most transient art. Can we photograph the future? On the face of it, no. But the future is an interweaving of the strongest currents of today. We can with some accuracy predict things. A very accurate example is the movement of the planets; vast but regular.

God does play dice, but usually at the level of the very very small. And she does it for variation and not amusement.

We could go back to the bank of the River Wharfe and say that this particular 100 metre mass of water travelling at 3 km per hour – will be very much the same mass that passes another observer, 3 km downstream, in an hour’s time. We could even throw in a rubber duck to test it… But that’s just my sense of humour rather than ‘sense’ of scientist…

Now, where’s that picture clean-up routine?

©Stephen Tanham 2023

Stephen Tanham is a Director of the Silent Eye, a journey through the forest of personality to the dawn of Being.

http://www.thesilenteye.co.uk and http://www.suningemini.blog

4 Comments on “The Foundations of the Future

  1. Thanks for this, Steve. A wonderfully reflective piece. Our efforts do seem to be increasingly short term – gone are the projects that might take centuries and be expected to last millennia.

    Your memories of developing from film made me smile. I used to use Wildings in Chorley and remember the warm anticipation of getting photographs back that might have been in the camera for months, or going out to “waste” a few shots, so I could get through the roll of 36, and develop my holiday pictures – then how often those wasted shots turned out to be the most interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

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