If you think of a picture taken with a camera lens from over a hundred years ago, what kind of image would you have in your mind? And what kind of picture would it take?
At Art on the Hill this year, we have a special exhibition of photographs taken with a collection of antique lenses paired with modern cameras- and the results may surprise you.
Amy Hill from the Art on the Hill team went to meet the family behind this project
Marie and Andy Pohler moved to Brill just over a year ago and brought with them a stash of very interesting photographs. They burst with colour and show the movement and vibrancy of daily life in Taiwan and Japan. But even before the first shutter was released on this series, hours of thought and technical expertise had gone into creating the camera- lens combinations.
Marie’s Father Sunny Tseng is the former technical director of Kodak Far East and for as long as she remembers has been an avid collector of camera lenses. His profession started him on a life-long journey to understand the history of these lenses and camera development from a very early stage - as far back as the seventeenth century, and all the way up to the digital camera age. He’s eighty-eight years old now, and still collecting.
Marie’s brother Tony Tseng is a fine artist, and is the one behind the camera, taking the pictures with a modern digital camera, paired with the very old lenses. Connecting the two is where Sunny’s unique expertise comes in. Since many of these lenses were made for one camera - in a day when photography was not prolific - finding adapters to fix them together is the huge challenge. For some of the combinations, three, four or five connectors are used, and in some cases where nothing has worked, Sunny himself has made an adapter. Images of the equipment used are shown alongside the photographs, adding a fascinating dimension to the display.
The sharpness and quality of the images is quite remarkable- given the age of the lenses. Sunny wanted to demonstrate that the technology and that quality of the lens- even in Victorian times- was amazing, and that the lens is the key constituent to a photograph. The exhibition is about his passion for the technological aspect of photography.
Marie and Andy laugh as she admits she is a ‘phone camera user’ and they talk about Sunny’s collecting obsession - he has thousands of lenses. ‘He’s so enthusiastic. He can’t stop collecting.’ Says Marie. Years ago, when I was working at a bank in London, every now and then I’d get a phone call from my Dad in Taiwan saying: ‘Tomorrow there’s going to be an auction at Christies, can you just pop down there at lunchtime?’ and I’d say: ‘Dad I have to work’ and he’d say ‘Yes but there’s going to be this really important camera…’ I went two or three times for him!’
The lenses date from 1850-2003, and the series has pictures taken using lenses from almost every decade in between. A selection of images will be exhibited at this years Art on the Hill, 28th - 29th March.
Ahead of Art on the Hill, Amy Hill went to meet two ceramic sculptors whose work will be on sale in Brill in March.
The sun in streaming into the rustic conservatory, lush pot plants are everywhere and a good cup of coffee is by my side. This is how I meet Carol Read and Richard Ballantyne on a working Thursday morning, and pretty soon I’m thinking a potter’s life might be for me.
The pair bounce off each other as they take me through what they make, how they sell, what’s great, what’s not and it’s a good thirty minutes before we go and have a rummage in the workshop and garage, by which time, I’m dying to clap eyes on the actual ceramics. I can tell they’re going to be good – something about the way they interact and their easy-going, off-the-wall nature. Richard Ballantyne is particularly tongue in cheek. ‘What do you like about AOTH?’ I ask him.
‘Well I like the Pheasant. I went up to the Pointer the other day and they did pretty good meal too!’
Carol brings us back to the art.
‘It’s a friendly group of people that run it. They always make us feel very welcome and appreciate what we do. And we’ve been pretty successful with sales- it’s all those things combined really.’
When we get to the ceramics, it’s been worth the wait. Their most successful pieces are animal figures- all sorts, but birds and hares feature heavily and they use a distinctive Japanese glazing technique called ‘Raku’, and inject the creatures with a hint of humour. The making takes a long time, and there are many different processes. The clay starts off on a potter’s wheel- this base shape is manipulated, ‘smacked around’ and cut. Then bits are added- legs, heads, fur. By this point what ‘it is’ is pretty firmly established.
‘It’s an amalgamation of skills,’ says Richard. ‘Carol might throw something and I’ll do the modeling, or part of the modelling- she might finish it off, and one or both of us might do the glazing or the firing.’
The firing is at around a thousand degrees- not unusually hot, but instead of being left to cool slowly, the pieces are taken out of the kiln at that temperature- the glaze starts to crack, and it’s put straight into a bin of sawdust which smokes and often catches fire. The smoke penetrates all the cracks in the glaze and that’s how you get the distinctive black ‘Raku’ crackle.
Once the piece comes out of the sawdust, it’s absolutely black, covered in soot. As you clean it off you see what’s happened in the firing. Each model is completely unique, and so is the ‘crazing’ of the glaze. ‘Is that the ‘wow’ moment?’ I ask. ‘It’s more ‘phew’ than ‘wow’.’ Says Richard drily.
Some of the figures are mounted on quirky objects that Richard has discovered at car-boot sales. An owl sits atop a large brass car-horn. ‘A hooter on a hooter’. A chicken on a battery? – of course, a ‘battery hen’.
Ballantyne and Read have been working together for nine years- after meeting at High Wycombe college where Richard was teaching the evening class. From there ‘the whole thing has mushroomed out of control’ says Richard, and they are now able to make a reasonable living out of their creations- not a given in the world of ceramics.
It seems that their success relies a lot on the partnership and the way they complement and challenge each other creatively: ‘A lot of the time when you work as an artist, you work in isolation. It’s really lovely to chuck ideas around with someone, have constructive criticism, we are each other’s best critics.’ says Carol.
Richard agrees: ‘Having an objective eye on it – that really helps. And just getting through stuff, there’s stuff that’s really boring to do- like cleaning off soot. And just the process of making is time consuming. So like today we decide we’re going to tackle hares. We get it done together.’
Their work is to be found in galleries in Cornwall, Scotland, Ireland and in Europe, and closer to home, Waterperry, Thame and Witney. And of course at Art On the Hill in Brill on the 23rd and 24th of March.