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More on Polymathics

What gets better as you get older

As people age they focus, or tend to, on the things they are losing, the things and faculties that are worsening, the situations and events that are sliding into chaos or decay. It is all part of the default pessimism of most cultures. Why is this the default setting? Because a culture is living YOU if that makes sense. You’re like a single cell and your existence serves the culture, to some extent, but since the culture is not alive- it has been created by humans- it is parasitic on human energy to keep it alive. Like the matrix it feeds off our vital forces, and that drain is experienced by us as pessimism. Without its supply of human energy the vampiric culture dies, it displays itself as energy hungry and casts aside those who cannot blindly feed it- therefore it prefers the young to those who have wised up, the old.

Yep, that’s the first benefit of aging, you’ve seen through the culture. You know you have to pay lip service and do your civic duty but that’s it. No overtime here will gain you anything. Your energies are better spent relating to real people.

As you get older is makes sense to focus on that which CAN evolve and improve:

You get to be less self-centred (if you try)

You become better at detecting subtleties

You see the bigger picture

You can predict things better

You have more foresight

Now the harder part- which requires work:

You can be less anxious

You can be more lighthearted

You can give more in every sense

Faced between making a heavier response and a lighter one you can choose the lighter one

You can learn more effectively

You can better identify worthwhile goals

You can be more use to people

The list could be longer but this is a start. The real regeneration of any culture begins when old age is seen as a revered and worthwhile goal not some kind of horrible garbage bin end to a beautiful, prolonged and self-centred childhood.




getting in the right head space

Half the battle is turning up. Half the battle is coming back to your work after taking a break, several times if necessary. And half the battle is getting in the right head space (all battles command more than 100% from you). This can be helped by travel, sleeping at a different time from usual, being ill, drinking, plenty of danger there for mistaking one thing for another. The best way to get in the right head space for taking photographs is 1) start taking pictures straightaway, bad ones especially (or very vaguely interesting ones if you prefer) 2) get closer  3) keep moving  4) get above people and look down 5) get below and look up 6)take more bad pictures 7) get closer . As William Burroughs said, good writing happens when your nose is right on the wheel in front. Writing and taking pictures are similar in that when you are in the right headspace you see possibilities everywhere.

Of course one of the main enemies of the right head space is getting precious about being in the right head space. You need to get rid of any pressure- self imposed or other-people-imposed. You need to be outside time- achieve this by other going very fast or very slow, machine gunning or simply staring. Increasingly, though, I find that almost any photos are good, almost any writing is good. Maybe the right head space is simply the one that says 'make something' rather than "it's not good enough". Not good enough for who?


11 things about the future I am contemplating

The future will be homemade

Life will be a niche in the future

The future will be human

A few big things will fail

The only agreed morality will be sustainability

The future will be opt in/sign up not opt out.

New forms of family and old forms of family will still be paramount

The future will involve fasting: food fasting and information/stimulation fasting. We’ve messed up our physical and mental digestion through over eating and we are stressed and distorted from too much information- people will regularly fast from both.

The future will be business not nation driven.

The future will tend away from either/or,  and, this/that

The future will be about growing things yourself

Time spent not driving/commuting will be seen as a major form of success





Here is a link to an article I wrote for the excellent essay magazine AEON on altitude and how it helps and hinders life...


Interview with Alias Johnny Stiletto

This pic of Francis Bacon- his favourite portrait- is just one of the more famous photographs in Johnny Stiletto's genre defying collection of photos and mini-essays: Shots from the Hip

I found the book a fascinating and refreshing take on photography- very inspiring for anyone at all interested in street photography- unique and utterly memorable photos and far and away the best writing on the subject. Johnny kindly agreed to be interviewed- here are his answers to my questions...

Q1: Your unexpected and quite brilliant photographs in Shots from the Hip amount to a kind of intellectual autobiography; it becomes a revealing diary but also a series of autobiographical essays touching on the two wars, women, film, London, ageing. It really is 'another way of looking through the camera'- why aren't there more books like this? Are there any you can think of?

A: What I try and do with my photographs is tell stories, quite often the story isn't particularly clear at the time I take the shot, I might have a feeling, or the circumstances might be interesting or even exciting so I try and shoot as intuitively as possible. Afterwards the shots are there and the circumstances have settled into some sort of logic or story and that's the point at which I look at the shot, think about what was happening at the time, what I was thinking about and what I was going through and write round it and through it. Like most people I suppose my thoughts are all over the place a lot of the time. Shots From The Hip took over ten years to shoot, photographing on a very regular basis. Commissioning editors are quite brutal and they want to see a proposal of somewhere between 120 and 160 shots that exist now and not in the future. They want to see photographs that are immediate, original, or to put it another way photographs they like. They also want to see something you’ve written and had published. They don't buy hopes, maybes, bluff, excuses or it'll be alright on the night. The photographs have to be taken by one person, if you include other people’s photographs and describe how they shoot them, you’re writing fiction. You just have to be very focused to do these kind of books and you're rather held to ransom by the quality of the shots you get so this may account for the fact that there aren’t many or any books like Shots.

Q2.I notice you mention that you shouldn't be a slave of the camera- which is something Daido Moryama also says, were you influenced by his street photography at all? If so, how?

If I'm completely totally honest I don't know Daido Moryama so that really slices the top off the question. Sorry about that. All I can say, though, Don't be frightened of the camera, don't be in awe of it, it's just a machine, a technical slave, feel comfortable with it, press the button when you see something you like or interests you and let the camera do the work. Cameras aren’t children, they’re grown ups, they can look after themselves.

Q3. I'm interested in the way words and pictures work together- something that is really effective about Shots from the hip- how far into taking the pictures did you plan it is as an essay/manifesto?

A:It was always going to be about words and pictures and again, I think goes back to telling stories and I think pictures quite often need a bit of help. Also if you think about it, words and pictures slide naturally together. Think about press ads, films, posters, comic books, editorial. Words and pictures are working partners, words can do things that pictures can't like setting a scene and a time and pictures capture emotion. When you add words to a picture you quite often add a layer of excitement that isn't there in the picture alone. With words you can direct people into a photograph, get them to look into it, see it your way, linger, enjoy, I hope. Putting words and pictures together just seems a natural thing to do.

Q4. You used an OM SLR (I think) for 'Shots', digital makes it easier - or does it?

A:They're two different things and they're both brilliant. In practical terms shooting digital is much cheaper, no negs, no prints. Also you can shoot a lot more on digital and you don't really have to worry about reloading, flicking the winder or the noise of the shutter. Digital is faster and quieter, the only thing I'm very careful of is using small memory cards- if you get stopped or somebody gets upset about a shot you might have to hand over the card, (the Paris police are particularly excellent at this and 75% of them are plain clothes) so if you've got a weeks of work on a memory card you risk losing a lot. What I like about film is that you can force it to the limits and does some very interesting things by accident. In a way I'm always looking for small accidents in the shots I take. I don't like them fixed and perfect, again it goes back to the story telling thing, if everything's frozen and perfect there's nothing left to read into it. It's much harder to bend digital, it's do-able but more difficult. I think that’s the overall problem with digital, it’s often a bit too precise everything’s there and that’s not really how we see things, in reality eyesight is a series of slightly imperfect impressions. You can give digital a slightly more narrative filmic look by under exposing by two thirds of a stop, in other words by making the exposure slightly darker than the camera’s programmed to do and it’s forced into doing a bit of dancing in the dark. On balance, if I'm completely honest I think it's archaic in 2015 to be shooting film.

Q5. What other photographers are there that mean something to you and you have learnt from, and what you have learnt from them?

A:Robert Capa is the photographer who I really first became aware of and who influenced me most. He photographed the D Day landings and most of the film was destroyed in excitement by the lab, about 12 shots survived and one of them is a very blurred image of a GI in the water struggling to the beach, you know nothing about the detail or the man and everything about everything else. That for me is when photographs stepped out of the phone booth and became superman. If there's a point the point is that you don't need to do crisp perfect to tell a story or take a great shot, always try and leave something to the imagination.

Q6. What is the most useful encapsulated advice you have for street photographers?

A:Blend, be part of what’s going on and switch off the auto focus light.

Q7. The second most useful?

A:Shoot your life. The best photographer's photographs are all about them. Hello Me. They photograph the times they live in, the places they inhabit, the people they come into contact with the events that surround them. It’s a sort of universal rule, doesn’t matter what you’re shooting, interiors, fashion, war, reportage, it’s the personal bit, the interconnection with what’s happing in front and around the camera. Good photographs are autobiographies.

Q8. Anything else on mixing writing and photography that comes to mind?

A:Final last thing is a thought: if you're writing to a photograph it's often very nice to write to music.

Johnny Stiletto

Many Thanks.

Johnny Stiletto' s excellent website can be found here.

Shots from the Hip can be bought here on amazon


Look closer, don't try harder

Mulray was fitter and stronger than me by a long way. He exercised at the gym, he did weights and he ran. I was going through a period of doing no more exercise than walking and a little gardening. I wasn’t inactive, but I was far from being the fitness fanatic that Mulray had become. One day, we found ourselves at a children’s party. The father of the bithday lad- a class mate of my son and Mulray’s daughter- had rigged up a thick climbing rope from a high tree branch. The kid’s eventually tired of swinging on it and I saw Mulray make an experimental effort at climbing it. He got a few feet off the ground and seemed to get stuck. Then he dropped lightly to his feet. “It’s virtually impossible, climbing ropes,” he told me. I couldn’t help myself. Without a word I shimmied up that rope right to the top, hauled myself up to the branch looked around as if enjoying the new view (it wasn’t bad) and then slid hand over hand back to the ground. I hadn’t climbed a rope in twenty years. Mulray muttered that I must have ‘strong arms’. I told him that his were almost certainly stronger than mine. But that didn’t matter- climbing ropes is a matter of co-ordination, not strength. I said I’d show him. He watched, then he had a go. I then saw his problem. He didn’t realise you just gripped for a few seconds with the hands, enough to get a foot grip. Then you pushed, again for just a concentrated moment, so that your hands could slide up. You’re never in a static position, gripping with your hands and feet and PULLING yourself up as if doing a chin-up. Except that’s where he kept finding himself. His whole perception of rope climbing was that it was ‘difficult’- and that it looked like doing a pull-up, which is one of the harder things you can do in a gym. And each time he failed he told himself off for not having ‘enough strength’.

It was a challenge to try and teach him how to climb the rope. First I told him to lose any idea of hauling yourself up. Think of pushing yourself up with your legs. The hands are just to stabilise the procedure and to hold you in place for the brief moment when you move your legs up to a new gripping position. I then told him to imagine climbing as about switching as efficiently as possible with as little lag as possible between hands and feet. With these two images in mind- using legs to push and climbing as a dynamic switching from hands to feet and back again, he was – after a few days – able to learn how to climb a rope.

When we approach a new enterprise we often have a wrong perception of how difficult it is. We often compare it to something simpler else that looks similar- but may well be very different, may well be harder. We often get ourselves into ‘static’ situations. For example insisting that you have a clear guarantee of profits before starting a new business, when in fact all businesses are dynamic enterprises where results aren’t obvious until you are actually trading. This leads to all sorts of chicken and egg situations- but instead of avoiding these and sidelining them we should realise they are the NORM. People moan and say you can’t get a job without experience, and you can’t get experience without a job. This kind of seemingly closed loop describes real life, not some career guidance counsellor’s fantasy. Of course you can take a course to break the vicious circle, but that it is only one of many ways in- after all everyone else somehow managed to get a job despite the same handicap. One of the most successful people- in the wider sense- I know is a film location scout. This is a very specialised and fascinating job- and there are no courses and jobs are never advertised. He told me that after leaving university- where he studied English and got a poor degree because he wasn’t very interested- he decided that finding film locations would be a great job. He told me that he spent over a year finding the right person and the right way into the business- finding someone who would take him on as a ‘runner’, a menial assistant- yet also give him a chance later. He didn’t send off hundreds of applications- only one. But he did his research first- and he started from being an outsider with no contacts.

We are trained at school to look for static situations and identify them as ‘the truth’ or as a truthful representation. We are trained to sneer at or laugh at or raise an ironic eyebrow at closed loops- ‘you can’t get an agent until you’ve published a book, you can’t publish a book until you have an agent’, ‘you need confidence to make a sale, but only a sale will give you confidence’, ‘to make money you need money’- the list is long, maybe endless, because these closed loops are the closest we can get, without lengthy explanations like this one, of depicting the intractable and even mysterious nature of a dynamic situation from the static perspective of a short sentence or two.

One way of ‘trying too hard’ is to use a static representation as your guide- and then simply bust a gut ‘trying’. In the job/experience situation this would be sending out hundreds of applications. Instead, you have to embrace any ‘closed’ dynamic representation and use that as your starting point. That’s the REALITY. Then look for ways to get a small grip, a way to catch hold somewhere of the whirling embrace that is a dynamic situation. It often bewilders beginners in any field that the ‘turning up is 75% of success rule’ should hold. They think that ‘talent’ or ‘hard work’ should be pre-eminent. But these are static concepts. Turning-up is a dynamic concept. It implies performance over time. And that is what counts.

Mulray tried to climb the rope with a static image in his head. Instead of really looking closely at what people did when they climbed, he looked for a static image he could embrace. Looking closely at any human activity gives all sorts of clues to the dynamic reality. Once he had a DYNAMIC image he succeeded. By embracing contradiction, revelling in incongruity, seeing paradoxes, we can train ourselves to see dynamic reality more easily. You can then begin to work out a strategy to get on board whatever you seek to do. One very good source of stories and jokes that represent exactly this are the Mulla Nasrudin stories as retold by Idries Shah- all available on Amazon.


Polymathic Synergy #2

Polymathic Synergy is right at the heart of why polymathics gives you such an advantage over the inward looking specialist. I am not of course talking about the highly successful 'specialist' who, in order to appear normal, hides his multifarious sources of inspiration, is, in fact, a covert polymath. As Professor Robert Root-Bernstein has found:

“Almost all Nobel laureates in the sciences actively engage in arts as adults. They are twenty-five times as likely as the average scientist to sing, dance, or act; seventeen times as likely to be a visual artist; twelve times more likely to write poetry and literature; eight times more likely to do woodworking or some other craft; four times as likely to be a musician; and twice as likely to be a photographer.”

(Professor Robert Root-Bernstein of Michigan State University writing in the Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology Vol 1 No.2 2008.)


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