Change and Decay

Change and decay in all around I see,

O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

(Rev. Henry Frances Lyte, 1793-1847: "Abide With Me")


Frying pan and barrel. Why was it put there? When? Did they just get a better pan? Or did they rescue this one, intending to clean it up? Nikon Df. Micro Nikkor.

If I hadn't been shot in the backside, I'd never have got these pictures. The shots were a 10-day course of antibiotics; Emmanuelle, the nurse who was doing the shooting, was about to move house; and because we knew her slightly, she left us a flier for her vide-maison or house emptying. This is a sort of open house for selling off stuff that you no longer need (for example, because the children have grown up) or simply can't fit into the new house (for example, because you're moving from a big old ex-farm with lots of outbuildings to a nearby city). 

There are a lot of houses like this in rural France, full of the jumble of centuries. Often, it's just too much trouble to move things, but it's a shame to throw them away. Especially if the previous owner died, a lot of stuff gets left behind. Some of the stuff gets thrown out by the new owners. Other things are moved into outbuildings or left where they are. Friends of ours, for example, got a haywain thrown in with their house. It's probably worth quite a lot of money to the right person, but how would you go about selling it? Also, when you have immense amounts of storage space, it's tempting to give a home to things that other people are throwing out. 


Cellar. Why the arch? I don't know. It may just have been to cut down on the amount of stone needed. It may have been a fireplace. It may have been a tunnel through to the other cellar. It doesn't take long for reasons to be forgotten, especially when the house changes hands a few times. The red bit at the top is (I think) flare from a light bulb immediately overhead. Nikon Df, 14mm Sigma.


“Living history” houses are always neat and tidy and “in period”, looking as they might have done at some arbitrarily chosen date. Even though people had far fewer material possessions as little as 100 years ago, I've long suspected that these “living history” places were actually a lot untidier when they were lived in. Children's toys; clothes waiting to be ironed or repaired; pairs of boots by the door; knick-knacks brought home from the seas or the wars; books, or at the very least the Family Bible; there must have been more clutter than in reconstructions. Remember too that houses (especially farmhouses) were far more crowded in the past. There was little or no reliable contraception, even if you thought it wasn't a sin, and several generations commonly lived in the same house, often with servants and hired hands. 


Barrel and bottles. There were two cellars, one huge, one merely large. The trough around the wine-press drained into the larger cellar, where the barrels and bottles were kept.  It was so dark I had considerable difficulty in focusing: I should have fetched my torch, which I'd brought but left with Frances . The exposure here was 20 seconds: I used the "T" setting on the Nikon Df. Micro Nikkor.


Today, we have all the leftovers from before, like the hand-operated irrigation pump, the potato scales, the wine press and the falling-apart barrels, but we also have the kids' bicycles, the bottles that were hoarded with a view to refilling them with either your own wine or local wine bought in bulk, the half-used containers of weed killer, the scooter that was never quite repaired and never will be now, the plastic garden chairs, the refrigerator that lives in the barn...


The scooter that was never quite repaired. And the electric organ. And one of the picnic chairs. And a short staircase. Leica M9 with 35mm Summilux.

The challenge in taking the pictures lay in neither over-romanticizing everything into “living [or at least not very dead] history” nor making the whole place look like a tip. But whenever we move out of a house we have lived in for a long time, there are always things that we have never quite been able to bring ourselves to throw away, but which are not worth moving. When Frances and I sold our last house in 2002, we filled two skips, and we'd only been there 10 years. Emmanuelle and her husband had been there 18 years, since 1998, and her parents had been there since 1959.


Date scratched into fireplace. The house was already centuries old in 1959. This chimney-piece covered the wash-boiler for clothes, which in turn had been built in front of a now-demolished bread oven. Micro-Nikkor.


The cellars and outbuildings really got our attention, so the first time we went, we took only wide and ultra-wide lenses. I had a 14mm on my Nikon D f and a 35mm on my Leica M9, while Frances had a 35mm Rodenstock Apo Grandagon and a 6x9cm back on her Alpa 12 S/WA: the equivalent, on 35mm, of an 18mm shift lens. Obviously we needed tripods: our exposures frequently ran to 10 seconds or more, which we simply counted. Even a 25% error is trivial, and we can generally do a lot better than that. This is more accurate than many shutters. Frances, shooting Ilford HP5, erred on the side of over-exposure even after spot metering the shadows. I, of course, could just rely on the screens on the backs of the cameras.  


Wine press and barrels. The cage in which the grapes were crushed, and the piston that fitted into the cage, were of wood and presumably rotted away. There were iron hoops hanging on the wall that might once have encircled the cage. Nikon Df, 14mm Sigma.


We shot for a couple of hours, during which time I realized that wide-angles could tell only part of the story: there were details and still lifes crying out to be shot with longer lenses. Fortunately Emmanuelle was perfectly happy for us to return. I should have mentioned that the vide-maison was on a Sunday; we went back to take pictures on the following Friday; and they were moving out on the Tuesday. This left Monday for the second batch of pictures. 

Frances stuck with the Alpa and the Apo Grandagon, but I took the Nikon with 14/3.5, 35/2, 55/2.8 Micro Nikkor and a Vivitar Flat Field 90-180/4.5. I left the Leica at home because the greater precision in framing with the Nikon. The wide angles were for the parts of the house we hadn't seen (Emmanuelle hadn't been able to find the key), and the Micro Nikkor and the Vivitar were for still lifes and details: both focus down to half life size. 


Wine bottles in the big cellar. Bottles for sparkling wine are heavier and stronger than bottles for ordinary wines, and therefore more durable for refilling. Micro-Nikkor. 


There's always something new to learn, or old lessons to re-learn, and these two sessions proved no exception. Light tripods can be just as stable as heavy ones, but they're also easier to kick over when you're moving something out of the way. Fortunately I caught mine on the way down. I used a heavier tripod (an original Benbo) for the second session.

Luckily, too, although the petal-type lens hood of the 14mm scraped the wall as it fell, it protected the lens from mechanical damage, which is often as important as light shading. Even so, I should have put the cap on whenever I wasn't using the lens. I do now. For several shots I found I needed to stand between the light source (just out of shot) and the camera, for better contrast and to lose internal reflections. 


The smaller cellar. Whereas the big one was more in the nature of foundations for the house, this one was hacked from the (fairly) solid rock. Nikon Df, 14mm Sigma.


Another lesson is that although a second bite at the cherry is useful, freshness of vision is arguably even more important. There were a couple of pictures I'd already planned from the first visit, plus four or five more that I saw afresh. If I'd had the Micro Nikkor on the first trip, I could have shot them. As it turned out, the 90-180 was too long in the confined spaces, even for details, but the Micro Nikkor was ideal.


Fireplace with stopped-up bread oven (rear) and heater for wash-copper. Leica M9 with 35mm Summilux.


Unfortunately I didn't have as much time as I'd have liked on the second trip, even though we were there for almost three hours instead of two. Emmanuelle wanted me to take some general interior shots to remember the house by. This was time consuming, and frankly the shots were pretty dull; but they were a payback for access. I shot close to 100 pictures in all, and gave her 40 10x15cm prints: 18 from the first shoot and 22 from the second. I also copied about 60 onto a CD, and said I'd do a couple of enlargements if she'd like.


Agricultural implement. I'm not sure what it is. It's probably been there 100 years or more. Nikon Df, 14mm Sigma.


As ever, the pictures I shot were nowhere near as good as the pictures I could see in my head, but that's normal: ask a musician if the music they play is as good as the music they hear in their head. I'm thinking of making up a little portfolio in book form, something I can carry with me, so I can ask people if they know of anywhere I might be able to take similar pictures: I might even approach a couple of estate agents and offer to swap sales shots for access to other houses like Emmanuelle's.

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When you have lots of space...


Cellar with flare...



...and without. I stood beside the camera so that it would be in my shade. With a 14mm lens you have to be careful to stay out of shot.


Magnum. Look closely at what it is standing on: a spout that comes through the wall from the big trough around the wine press. Micro Nikkor.


Living history. When history is genuinely alive in a place, instead of being Disneyfied as "living history", things like these wine-masking accessories that are not being used but might come in handy are stashed away in cardboard boxes, rather than being artfully laid out. There's a box of barrel sealant, and some corks, and a cork socker. The cork-socker is the aluminium device, lower centre: it holds a cork so you can sock it into a bottle.


The last goal. As well as pictures for myself, I took pictures that would remind the owners of the 18 years they had spent at the house, bringing up the children.


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Words and pictures copyright (c) Roger Hicks 2016