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  • Writer's pictureHaydn Dickenson


Firstly, apologies for the absence of activity in this column for well over a month. I have been going through some stressful times, and my artistic output has been in abeyance.

Life goes on however, until it doesn't, as the saying goes.

I want to write today about my encounter with a masterly photographer, Mick Williamson, whose work and philosophy have resonated profoundly with my approach to painting since I met him and viewed his work for the first time just one week ago.

Many of you know that I embrace two artistic passions as career paths – the visual arts and music. I enjoyed a previous life as a classical concert pianist, and I still teach advanced classical piano technique and interpretation to a small number of carefully selected, gifted students. The visual arts however – in the form of abstract painting – form the principal thrust of my creativity in the seventh decade of my life.

Less well-known is that I harbour another artistic passion; a hobby, but one which I take extremely seriously and which informs, inspires and feeds - just as music does – my abstract painting.

That pursuit is analogue photography, using vintage cameras, on 35 mm and 120 film, often expired. Some people are aghast at my espousal of the 'expired film' cause, telling me it is a waste of money.

I hear them. I have had my disappointments due to badly-kept film, but ultimately I disagree! With expired film, I love the added element of chance, the part of the creation that is beyond my control, the way in which colours may be dramatically altered by the passage of time or by poor storage conditions leading, as once happened to me, to a batch of several expired colour films coming out in varying shades of magenta when developed, something that a friend remarked upon as reminiscent of the films of Wes Anderson. I cherish these shots – the lady who does my developing was less enthusiastic!

Maia on an ancient Agfa Synchro Box with 35 mm adapter on expired film

Black and white is my favourite though and, alongside the expired rolls that I shoot, I do treat myself to the occasional in-date Ilford HP5 or Kentmere 400. My three-year old granddaughter is custodian of my camera collection. She has her own favourites, she knows which films in my special box in the fridge are black and white, and she often chooses which we should use before loading them for me!

Once shot, I develop my black and white films in Caffenol, another weird niche activity which involves brewing a heady cauldron of instant coffee, washing soda and vitamin C. Again, off the rails, but that's me!

1970's Praktica LTL with expired film, developed in Caffenol

Sorry for the long preamble – I know I am prone to verbosity - but I wanted to set the scene for what I am about to report.

In January I discovered, via a Christmas present from my daughter, the fantastic Darkroom in Camden, North London , where I went to learn how to print from my own photographic negatives; I went up there again last Tuesday to attend an incredibly fascinating and inspiring talk by Mick Williamson, mentioned above.

As I am a relative photography novice, Mick's name was a new one to me when I received the email from the Darkroom, advertising his upcoming talk. Although I am usually busy on Tuesday evenings, with piano tuition and/or meetings with my art agent regarding proposed exhibitions (watch this space, as there will soon be news on at least one!), something told me – CANCEL AND GO!

On arriving at the Darkroom, one has to press a buzzer to be admitted through a high security gate and thence down a slightly forbidding, low-ceilinged concrete walkway which my photographer's eye always makes me wish I had a very fast film (possibly CineStill 800 for the tungsten light), a cable release and a tripod with me to capture this slightly vertiginous passage and its eerie atmosphere!

Once inside unit 10, what met my eye was several walls of diminutive but astoundingly powerful chiaroscuro photographs, all mounted in plastic sleeves on a larger expanse of white, and pinned into hanging wires. The impact was stunning.

I peered at these tiny prints, marvelling at the incredible composition, the observation, the photographic equivalent of what I call 'motivic connections' in music, the simple majesty of the candid moment that was presented so honestly and without artifice. I asked myself how any eye could see in such detail and with such unfailing 'rightness' how a shot would work, how the exposure could be so utterly correct, the totality of the image creating such a searing but gentle impression; moments embraced with accuracy, truth, and love. I felt that every one of these phenomenally acute observations must have involved intense concentration, composition and preparation.

On a table was displayed a copy of Mick's book, THE PHOTO DIARIES OF MICK WILLIAMSON, a copy of which I am now fortunate enough to own. I picked it up and started thumbing through it.

Stunned, I read that Mick's photographs are almost never composed by looking through the viewfinder of his simple, vintage Olympus Half-Frame camera.

No, Mick makes his art by 'shooting from the hip'. Mingling silently with the world at large, out of his well-worn pocket Mick grabs the camera in a moment of Zen-like intuition and fires it at his subject from waist-height.

One can readily imagine him, slipping like mercury, unnoticed in the crowd as he unfailing records his deeply compelling and moving moments of truth with rarely a glance into any viewfinder.

Mick's presence in a room is remarkable. He is a slightly built man, unassuming, calm, warm and gentle in his manner. He puts me in mind of Tai Chi masters whom I encountered when I studied that art some years ago. Alongside the Zen-like tranquillity however, sits a crackling energy and a quietly fizzing humour as Mick explains, free of any distracting ego, his working method and artistic beliefs.

Mick Williamson (on right of picture) talks about his work at the Darkroom, Camden

When art becomes as seemingly effortless as this, I am always reminded of Eugen Herrigel's marvellous book ZEN IN THE ART OF ARCHERY about which I wrote in a previous article

I was excited then - though not surprised - to find, on opening Mick's book last Tuesday that Herrigel's work is mentioned by Susan Andrews in her excellent introduction. The pioneer of candid photography Henri Cartier Bresson, she tells us, based his artistic ethos on the Japanese art of the bow as explained by Herrigel, and she makes a parallel between this approach and Mick Williamson's own ego-free one. As Susan Andrews writes, “his presence seems almost invisible in the photograph”.

Mick, through his mastery which has been honed over many years, becomes one with the camera, one with the subject, and one with the moment. All is a totality and is indivisible. Once in a while, one encounters a person and an art which make a profound impression; last Tuesday at the Darkroom, this happened to me.

How does all this link with my own work as an abstract painter? It surely does, though I want to speak little about myself in this article. Suffice it to say that I feel myself to be a channel through which – as in my article already quoted – “it paints”, as a door opens and I am ushered inside a new realm where, when the best conditions prevail I, likewise, paint 'from the hip', spontaneously and without pre-meditation.

Copyright Haydn Dickenson 2024

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27 de mar.
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I love your use of the unpredictable and random in your work. The effect of the degradation of the expired film is part of the magic. I think the same is what fascinates me about working in clay!

Haydn Dickenson
Haydn Dickenson
27 de mar.
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Thank you, and yes, the aleatory element in all the arts is a crucial and compelling one. I think I wrote recently about my horror at a piece of amateur art criticism that bemoaned the lack of planning in an abstract painting (not mine). As far as film goes, one can also freeze, or heat the film, striving to achieve certain effects; but I have not travelled that road - it seems, bizarrely, too 'planned', and I would certainly be disappointed if the imagined result was not obtained!

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