“It’s Christmas Theo, it’s the time of miracles”

Hans Gruber, Beloved Christmas Terrorist

Christmas is a piece of family-orientated theatre, rich with idiosyncratic traditions that only exist within our own eccentric little bubbles, along with the shared, large scale infectious hysteria of a nation psyching itself up for some overly indulgent festive respite. The glittery extravagances aside, there are some sombre notes in there too, ably personified by those depressing Salvation Army adverts featuring the iconic brass band in their black trench coats and peaked caps, an open-mouthed tuba snaking its way around the portliest of frames, and all huddled together like emperor penguins awaiting the approach of a killer ice storm.

As the first bars of Rossetti’s In the Bleak Midwinter start to roll I half expect Werner Herzog to chime in with a suitably devastating narration about the cruel indifference of the natural world, a kind of anti-Attenborough as it were. “Soon the ice will cling to their feathers, their beaks frozen, the unhatched eggs shattering from the cold. Christmas has come to the Pole…” It’s not that I don’t understand the urgency of the Salvation Army message — the bitter inversion of jolly Christmas world to one that reminds us of the suffering and loneliness of others. I get it, I really do, and it breaks my heart, but this has more to do with the fact that my own personal reality is already securely tuned to Herzog FM, and frankly, I don’t need the reminders.

This flip side of Christmas is important, which is why so many of us welcome the distraction, and really should look to others with a sense of common humanity filling our hearts. I just can’t abide the Salvation Army ads. In recent years, the John Lewis department store has taken the Christmas ad to the next level, establishing a certain reputation for delivering memorable, even moving vignettes with a theme of unity and acceptance, which is probably a nice thing that we should all applaud, although I do find it strange to receive a moralising sermon from an effing chain store that specialises in selling overpriced knickknacks for those wanting to recreate the Nigella Lawson look at home.

Substituting actual goods for a good feeling is the zenith of branding, and you can well imagine the comfortably well-off family opening their gifts on Christmas morning secure in the knowledge that they are a wholesome and charitable bunch since these are John Lewis commodities, the Christmas people. I’m a total hypocrite of course and have relied on JL on more than one occasion to supply me with a “looks-expensive because it really is” gift on short notice. Wandering between those twinkling shelves of designer kitchenalia and high specification espresso machines it’s hard not to get drawn in. Imagine. You say to yourself, how much better your life could be if only you had one of those coffee machines gurgling away on your slate countertop! Our Turkey baster came from Lewis’s, purchased with wedding vouchers if I recall correctly, as did the set of little terracotta bowls we use for nuts, both of which will make an appearance over the holidays I’m sure.

I also have to admit that a large part of my enjoyment of Christmas stems from wanting to reconnect with the past, and Christmas is pretty heavy-handed when it comes to the subject of nostalgia. Surely that’s why we revive and sustain those family traditions transplanted from the parental home to our own. We watch the same Christmas films year after year because they are comforting, a safe harbour, and goodness knows we need some of that this year.

For me, Christmas TV was all about Star Wars, and whatever other science fiction flicks happened to be scheduled. My wet plate collodion image, Mother with Calf, is something of a love letter to those times, as is Dalek, featuring the centrepiece of my Star Wars collection. These images were shot in my garage/workshop/darkroom on my homemade 8”x10” wet plate camera that I named “Vonnegut” after one of my favourite writers. A small brass plaque attached to the camera frame recalls a famous quote from his novel Mother Night that has always struck a chord with me and seems oddly appropriate in a photography context: “We are what we pretend to be, so must be careful about what we pretend to be.”

Mother and Calf (December 2020) - Paul Whitehouse
Dalek (December 2020) - Paul Whitehouse

I built my camera during the first lockdown and while it is at times an unwieldy beast, it does the job well enough. It’s also my first serious camera build, although I did previously construct an Afghan box camera after reading Birk Foley’s magical book of the same title, which revealed to me the beautifully simple yet quite brilliant inner workings of a rudimentary view camera and gave me the confidence to embark on my own project.

After taking Dave Shrimpton’s wet plate workshop and spending a few weeks making a lot of mistakes and asking a lot of questions of the wet plate online community as I fine-tuned my set-up, I was able to achieve some consistently pleasing results. A large part of the pleasure of analogue photography is the process itself, with wet plate occupying a creatively fertile space somewhere between science and alchemy. After a few pints I might even be tempted to call it magic, and I doubt many would disagree upon watching their first plate bloom into life like some mysterious folkloric creature rising from the deep. That I have reached this point, building my own plate camera, knocking together a studio-darkroom in a dusty garage and making my own plates, with only an amateur’s passing understanding of the art should give everyone hope that they can do the same. History reminds us that the early plate photographers were true innovators and inventors, feeling their way through a process still in its infancy while searching for mechanical solutions to the challenges they encountered. I like to think that we black-fingered garage enthusiasts are continuing in that tradition.

I’ve come to realise that much of my photography touches on the interrelated themes of memory, forgetting, loss and recollection, with the decision to photography my beloved childhood toys an organic one partly necessitated by the lack of human contact during the pandemic. I wanted to memorialise these treasured objects, and I’ve been moved by how many friends have shared their own experiences after seeing these plates on social media, in much the same way that the film Toy Story, especially the final instalment, was so triggering, rekindling connections to the distant past and the objects that helped to define it we perhaps thought had eroded away almost entirely. It’s my intention to continue down this rabbit hole.

Returning to film of a different kind, The Black Hole was another seasonal favourite, as were the original Star Trek movies that were often screened in the late afternoon or early evening, when I would pull my little chair in front of the box and wish that I too could be a Star Ship captain even half as cool as Kirk. The BBC and ITV would always feature at least one Bond film, and we could all count on an Indiana Jones and/or Goonies re-run, along with one of the two Gremlins films.

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One year I managed to convince my parents that Lethal Weapon was a Christmas comedy (I genuinely thought it was) and that we should all gather around to enjoy it having borrowed the tape from a friend but had to immediately retract my earlier statement after the lifeless, bare-breasted body of Amanda Hunsaker hit the bonnet of a car after her drug-induced eighteen story flight from an apartment balcony. Funny stuff. What’s even more amazing is that we all sat there and watched the whole thing, and it did in fact become one of the least appropriate but most requested Christmas family film traditions right up to the point where Mel Gibson (allegedly) lost his mind, and some way beyond that if truth be told. I should probably also say that my relationship with Gibson’s oeuvre is a complicated one, and I still can’t quite let go of the Mad Max series even if the mere sight of a now clearly insane Mel Gibson makes me fearful that he might one day use his Passion of the Christ dollars to become an actual Bond villain.

The best films were those that formed part of a franchise, since this would usually mean you would get the first on Christmas Eve and then one of the sequels on New Year’s Day, with any remainders picked up at Easter. As a kid in the late 80s, after the initial hysteria of Star Wars had subsided to some extent, it was easy enough to come by any amount of action figures and starfighters at jumble sales, so my Christmas was replete with great films on TV and a good haul of second hand Star Wars merchandise with which to recreate scenes of my own. I’ve kept almost all of it, some of which is artfully displayed around the house, although during this past year I’ve noticed that I’ve moved my collection into more prominent positions, acting as a visual coda to happy memories as COVID does to us what Jabba wanted to do to Han and the guys.

Broken Toy Wet Plate - Paul Whitehouse
Broken Toy Wet Plate – Paul Whitehouse

As much as I love Christmas TV, I have no great affection for war movies or anything featuring someone called Bridget and a diary. A good litmus test of whether I will hate something is how much screen time is devoted to Hugh Grant awkwardly pursuing an American love interest. As measures go it’s a fairly robust failsafe, but even so I felt strangely attacked when I noticed Sky’s most recent offering, The Undoing, that took Grant’s tried and tested box office formulae and flipped it on its head, with sinister, bloody consequences. I didn’t watch it but did my usual thing of lurking in the doorway asking my increasingly irritated partner a series of inane questions as she tried to follow the plot. It was a grim drama, as these things usually are, and I do struggle to watch them. I can’t manage those Scandinavian noir series either, nor anything with misleading titles like Happy Valley or Broadchurch, since they outwardly promise something homely that wouldn’t be out of place, say, in a John Lewis Christmas ad, with a light but serious touch, and certainly not the kind of appalling visceral horror that will all too quickly send me skuttling away into another room. My wife laps it up, the darker the better it seems, but I just can’t handle it for some reason, although I’m sure Herzog would scold me for looking away.

Which brings me in a roundabout way to probably the finest Christmas film franchise of them all: Die Hard. It’s become something of an in-joke these past few years, and one with the curious characteristic of being shared by millions of people worldwide, but even so the original vintage of the first two Die Hards is unsurpassed, and we always, ALWAYS watch them both before the big day. They are set at Christmas, which adds to the ambience, but they are also masterworks of glorious cinematic action, whether officer John McClane is intentionally trying to blow up a Boeing 747 or jumping off the top of Nakatomi Plaza.

Deborah lockdown sequence - Paul Whitehouse

As we watch we also play along, reciting lines we both know by heart, and naturally we both delight in seeing the peerless Alan Rickman, the great Severus of Nottingham, trying his hand at grand larceny with a German/Austrian/New York accent good enough for TV. Whenever McClane utters his inimitable catchphrase we always recall how the British censors of the 1990s changed the salty US original to “yippee ki-yay Kimosabe” for the TV release, which fooled absolutely no one and succeeds only in making McClane come off as a surprisingly puritanical New York cop with a thirst for terrorist blood.

The more you watch these films the more you see how they are metaphors for yuletide familial strife, especially the first one, which in the year of COVID adds some additional layers of meaning that I’m keen to overstate. Obviously enough, everyone is locked in and locked down in the plaza while the terrorists attempt to destroy a symbol of transnational economics (Nakatomi) while filling their own pockets, which I’m lazily going to say is a stand-in for the coming global recession and the rank cronyism of corrupt governments. McClane is the everyman/woman, doing their level best to stay self-isolated on the upper floors while picking off the terrorists and trying to make sense of the situation. Meanwhile, the useless appendages of government, aka Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne T. Robinson and his FBI goons, are outside peddling conspiracy theories and tripping over their own stupidity despite the clear-headed recommendations of advisors – “Jesus Christ, Powell, he could be an effing bartender for all we know!” With little in the way of help other than that offered over stuttering shortwave radio – the Zoom of the 1980s – by long-suffering patrolman Sergeant Al Powell, McClane has to MacGyver a plan of his own, and ultimately limps away from the whole sordid mess a hero, the Nakatomi hostages saved, and his marriage now heading into calmer waters.

At any rate, these are the things that will bring a little mild delight into my weeklong descent into extreme gluttony, and all that remains is for me wish you all the very best for the New Year and I hope you find some much needed time for friends and fellowship, however distanced they may be.

Yippee ki-yay, motherflubbers!

~ Paul

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Paul Whitehouse

Paul Whitehouse is a writer, researcher, and amateur analogue photographer with an interest in wet plate collodion and other historic techniques. His work encompasses a number of projects including literature...

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