Who needs perfection?

It’s been a while since I posted here, and I’ve been reflecting on the reasons for this. I can only conclude that it was due to a number of trips that didn’t deliver what I wanted from them, and that I was too critical of myself as a result. I don’t see myself as a perfectionist or a control freak, yet undoubtedly those traits exist within me.

I recently joined a photography networking group, and have already concluded that it’s not for me. On the first trip to a nature reserve it seemed that the pace of the event was dictated by the group. Unsurprising, but frustrating for someone who likes to linger with the things that inspire me, and move on quickly when they don’t.

The second event involved a model and a waterfall. This is a scenario I have successfully worked before, but here I found the event dominated by the gadget minded who wanted to set up lights everywhere, leading to a lot of dead time for the model (and me).

Then there were the two hours I spent on a riverside renowned for kingfishers where I didn’t so much as see a blur of blue, never mind capture one of the birds perching or diving. There was also the early morning walk around the nature reserve at Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire, where I heard lots of wildlife, but it was screened by walls of the sedge grass that makes this habitat unique.

Most recently I finished working in Liverpool late one night, so used the opportunity of being in the North West to drive to one of the more remote parts of the Lake District to shoot the sunrise. The forecast was perfect, the reality was that as the sun was climbing the cloud was descending. No colourful skies that day.


Let’s rewind though.

Before the group arrived for that first shoot I walked the area alone and shot this:

While the lighting guys were fussing over their exposure for the model I grabbed this in one of those dead times. That then allowed me to head to the waterfall before them and pick my spot for the waterfall,  which didn’t need a model to add to it.

No ***kingfisher? But what about the blue blur of banded desmoiselles?

Whilst the fenland animals were mostly hidden that grass had its uses. What’s more there are some subjects that cannot hide.

Shame about that Lakeland sunrise though.

Well maybe.  Or as some well known sixties rockers put it:

“You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime you find you get what you need.”

The Ups and Downs of Creativity Pt II

Whilst my last post demonstrated the upside of allowing the rules of creativity to guide your behaviour, this one certainly features some downs; quite literally.

After a week of continuous rain I hadn’t shot any pictures, and so made plans to photograph the outgoing tide at Sandsend near Whitby where old timbers create interesting patterns in the waters.  I’d checked tide times, light direction and weather forecast so was all set…. but at the back of my mind I was also aware that all of this rain might make a slight detour worthwhile.

If I visited Falling Foss first I should get some shots of the waterfall in full flow and make it to Sandsend for high tide.  My first mistake was parking in an overflow car park rather than the real thing, but this just meant a stretch of walking downhill to the waterfall.  I found a small fenced-off viewing area and took some shots of the cascade which is anywhere between 10 and 20 metres high, depending on which website you consult.  I even climbed over that fence to move a few yards to one side, trying to get a view without trees obstructing the view, but in truth I wasn’t really satisfied and felt that I had wasted my time coming.  I looked for a safe way down the cliff but the only possibility seemed to involve a substantial jump into a quagmire so returned to the fence, hoping that Sandsend would be more productive.

That was when I met a young couple and was asked by the man whether there was a way down that his partner could manage.  My decision not to proceed had been governed slightly by 15kg of equipment, but given that the lady in question was carrying a papoose with a small baby I was clear in warning against it.  We talked for a while about the waterfalls in the area (he had swum in the pool below Thomason Foss) and then went our separate ways.  He had reminded me however of something I’d read that declared Falling Foss to be one of the best UK waterfalls for swimming.

Connect, and be receptive – there must be a way down!

And so I followed another path which was heading downstream in the hope that there may be some steps down the cliff to the riverside.  I didn’t find any, but after a while there was a less dangerous looking slope, with enough trees dotted about to break one’s momentum if a footing slipped, which it did, several times.  Nevertheless I made it down to the riverside and was rewarded with this cascade pouring over a fallen log.

A passing dog walker who told me that there was a route to the falls from here, but that it was a bit muddy.  She’d given up because her small daughter had lost heart.  I shouldered my bag and set off.

Her definition of “a bit muddy” and mine clearly differed, especially when my shoe was sucked off and forward momentum planted my sock-clad foot shin-deep in more of the stuff.  I made it to the base of the fall, but I’m not sure it was worth the trouble.  Trying to find a shorter way back I was within a few feet of the viewing area but the last stretch of rock offered no purchase so it was back to the original slope and more of the mud.

Not being blessed with much upper body strength, having to haul my way back up that incline by tree roots and saplings was a challenge, so I was really glad to have that uphill walk back to the car when I finally made it.

Bloody creativity!

Why had I brought so many lenses and added all that weight to my bag?  The answer was in the boot of my car…

Being receptive means being ready when the opportunity arises.


The Ups and Downs of Creativity Pt I

Some weeks ago I wrote a series of articles on LinkedIn about the rules, or precepts, of creativity and how I have applied them both in my work as a facilitator but also in my photography.  These rules (as defined by the Open University during my MBA) don’t take equal billing, and indeed remembering all twelve of them can be an effort, but one of my favourites is this:

Connect, and be receptive.

It encourages me to be alert to the world around me; the things I see, read, hear and experience not just as passing sensations, but as opportunities to exploit.  In my training work this enables me to find activities and anecdotes that bring my content to life, however this post, and the one that follows it, are about the ways in which this might influence what I photograph and how.

Since being made redundant last year I have worked occasionally as a film and TV extra, or supporting artist as the industry jargon prefers.  Aside from the economic drivers for doing this, I’ve long been interested in these media, and it allows me to feed my inner diva while I’m not standing at the front of a training room.  More than that though it allows me to see how scenes are shot and lit, so developing my own knowledge as a photographer.

These productions are tightly controlled to prevent press leaks and so on set photography is not allowed (unless you’re a cast member continually taking selfies), and posting details of specific shoots on social media would soon see you dropped by the agencies who get you work.  Understandable, but such a pity when many productions have great costumes and make up.  All the same in the areas off set, you will see us all snapping away with our mobile phones to capture our latest looks.

Most of my work has been on location, but recently I was working on a set built in a studio and so the holding area where we waited was actually still in the studio but beyond the walls of the constructed set; a 1950’s nightclub.  Since the whole space is painted black a large fresnel light had been set up and pointed at a white backdrop to reflect light into the whole space.  Immediately I could see the potential of the way this soft directional light was falling across people’s faces, so I came equipped the following day and began asking my colleagues if I could photograph them.  Needless to say in this situation I had plenty of takers and so I shot a gallery of film noir type images to share with them, taking advantage of the light and the costumes to add to that style.  Someone even took one of me in return.

The images I produced weren’t about my skill with the camera.  They were about my ability to see the opportunity and act on it.  Connecting and being receptive.

Part II gives a less straightforward example!


Courtesy of a trust fund established by an ex-employer, I’ve been doing a lot of learning in recent weeks with a view to finding more employment.  It’s six months since I lost my last job.  I’ve also been exploring the options for generating money through my photography, and getting onto the opposite side of the lens by working as an extra on a number of TV series.

The latter has been a revelation, as most of my work has been on location, but locations totally transformed to become something different for the camera.  In this respect I’ve undergone some transformations too!

A printer showroom was rebranded to become a high street bank, the private ballroom of an old sea captain’s mansion evolved into a nightclub, and best of all an empty high street department store in Lancashire was reborn as The Royal Northumberland Hospital.  Regrettably I’m unable to share the evidence as the use of cameras on set is not permitted so that producers can keep avoid leaks on social media.

The Biscuit Factor is now a gallery

It did get me thinking about ways of dealing with redundancy though.  As great buildings are no longer suitable for their original purpose they face demolition if unprotected, or stagnation if new owners can’t be found who are willing to comply with the regulations covering listed buildings.  Churches in particular are at risk as we become more secular.

No more Maynards sweets, but a creativity village

One of the productions I’ve worked on was shooting in the former Head Office of Martins Bank, a building with an interesting history, but some outstanding architecture, and yet because the building is largely empty, the gems it contains are hidden from view.  As a former banker who worked for the company that took over Martins in the 1960’s I felt some affinity of course, but anyone with an eye for craftsmanship would have loved the opportunity that I had.  Perhaps occasional guided tours may be possible?

There would doubtless be lots of objections to this on the grounds of security, cost, health and safety and so on, but the alternative is to see these artefacts of beauty and history wasted and decaying.

The bank had been due to begin a new life as a hotel.  Those plans seem to have fallen through.  Doubtless had they gone ahead there would have been damage and loss as a result of the alterations, but with care and sensitivity much could have been preserved.

On one of the learning events that I attended courtesy of that trust fund I stayed in a hotel that had revamped an older building.  The former Co-op department store in Newcastle was built in the 1930’s with many art deco features, and on the ground floor a glass and cast iron arcade.  It has been converted to a hotel now, and many original features remain, though close observation reveals where modern replacements don’t quite match the original!

With no room for that arcade what were they to do with it?  Stick it on the roof and forget about it it seems.  Hope that’s not a metaphor for another unemployed but otherwise perfectly serviceable relic!

*For the reasons described above many of these images were taken on iPhone – apologies if they’re not up to usual standards!



A Glimpse of the Underworld

Perched on a one of the numerous hilltops of central Sicily sits the unremarkable town of Aidone. It’s people go about their daily work, or strike up conversations in the main piazza just as they would in any other Italian town.

If you’re in the mood for a climb to one of the highest points you’ll find a small church and the remains of a former Capuchin monastery. The buildings now house a small archaeological museum that contains a number of artefacts from the earliest occupants of the island; prehistoric through to the classical era. Most originate from excavations at the nearby site of Morgantina, and though there are some beautiful pieces this was not a collection to rival the Vatican or the British Museum.

And yet there was something remarkable in Aidone, remarkable enough that I travelled out of my way to make sure I didn’t miss it. But before I reveal what that was I need to tell a different story.

Sicily played a very important part in the world of the Ancient Greeks, not simply because Syracusa was on a par with Athens in 5th Century BCE Greece, but because it was home to several key myths and legends which are familiar to us today. The rocks off the coast of Acitrezza were believed to have been hurled there by the cyclops Polyphemus in his attempts to sink the fleeing Odysseus. (Of course when there’s a volcano nearby there might be another explanation!)

Then there are the notorious Straits of Messina that separate the island from the Italian mainland. Many ships have been lost here in the dangerous waters, though of course that is down to the descendants of Poseidon, Scylla and Charybdis, who sat on the rocks on either side of the channel ready to devour both sailors and their vessels.

The nymph Arethusa turned herself into a stream to escape the passions of the river god Alpheus, and trickled underground, only to emerge safely as a spring on Ortygia, and provide water for the people of Syracusa.

There are more examples, but for Aidone the most resonant is the tale of Demeter and her daughter Persephone who was stolen away into the underworld by Hades.  (One of several entrances to hell is on the island). As goddess of the harvest, Demeter’s mourning for her lost daughter had a devastating effect on crops.  To end the devastation, Zeus negotiated a compromise whereby Persephone (or Kore as she is known to some) was returned to her mother for six months of every year, thus explaining the impact on crops of the changing seasons.

In a strange reversal, some underworld figures of the 20th century (tomb robbers) unearthed a statue at Morgantina from the 5th century, believed to be either Demeter or Persephone (I’ll always prefer that to Kore thanks to Wishbone Ash!).  For the sum of $18million it was bought by the Getty in LA, but the mourning of the Sicilians (where there had been a cult worshipping Demeter & Persephone) eventually saw her returned home where she brings economic rather than agricultural blessings.

Another Green World

The prevailing weather here in the UK come from the west.  The systems that cross the Atlantic have a couple of thousand miles to collect plenty of water vapour and then deposit it on the first suitable land that they cross; West Africa, Western Europe and of course the British Isles.  Here in the North of England we have the Pennines, a strip of hills and mountains that forms the backbone of the country and in forcing the air upwards, ensures that more of that rain is deposited here.  This is why the counties on either side of that range, Yorkshire and Lancashire were historically the home of our textiles industry.  The fast flowing rivers provided water for washing the materials and before the industrial revolution, a source of power.  Once the watermill had been replaced during the industrial revolution there was still a need for water to produce steam, the new power source.

I’ve written about the wealth that this generated for some in my posts about Bradford’s Wool Exchange, the warehouses of Little Germany, and the mill at Saltaire, but Bradford was not alone.  The Dales (open valleys) on either side of the country were dotted with mills once steam took hold, and the sheep that grazed the hills above no longer provided the raw materials.  Cotton was being imported from the US.  In the mid 19th century there were over 2500 mills in Lancashire alone.

The twentieth century told a different story however as the industry was obliterated by the effect of cheap labour in other parts of the globe.  An area once known for Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” is now very much “England’s green and pleasant land”.  In the case of Hardcastle Crags, an area of National Trust woodland in the Calderdale valley of West Yorkshire it was very green indeed.

It’s a curious feature of rain that it seems to make some colours more vibrant to the eye, and non more so than green.  Inevitably it was raining throughout my visit, and this alone might have accounted for hue that dominated my photographs, but all that water had another effect.  Waterlogged land provides an excellent habitat for mosses, but here in Calderdale they hadn’t restricted their presence to the ground; they had taken over dry-stone walls (something of a misnomer here) and continued their ascent into trees, where branches too were coated in a green luminescence.  The copper leaves of last year’s beech were a rare note of dissent against the total domination of the verdant.

My route through the woodland took me through a mile of such scenery, which provided ample opportunities to take advantage of the vegetation and its water supply, but with typical contrariness it wasn’t the green that drew me there.

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it was brown and grey


History Repeats Itself

In the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire, the world can consider itself fortunate that this magnificent building was not completely destroyed, whilst interesting questions are being asked about any restoration work.  Should it replace the spire as it was, or opt for a modern replacement given that the spire itself wasn’t original?  Or how about trying to restore the building to its medieval look before the spire was built in the 19th Century? There are valid arguments for each.  Macron has promised something better in its place, an easy promise for a politician with a short tenure compare to the time it will take to complete such work.

What is interesting is that the building was never intended to become so significant; its contents, or more specifically one relic was to have been the focus of the religious tourist trade to the city.  Notre Dame was begun in 1160 and was mostly complete a century later,  yet when Louis IX bought the Crown of Thorns in 1238,  he placed it in the nearby royal chapel of Sainte-Chapelle (another exquisite gothic structure).  The Crown remained there, until the French Revolution when it was moved to Notre Dame.  Those who believe in the veracity of such relics will be relieved that it survived the blaze, and yet most will be more concerned about the damage to the church.

A few decades later (though details are sketchy as to its origins) another artefact linked to the crucifixion took up residence in Turin, again in premises owned by royalty.   You may not have realised that the “real” crown of thorns was in Paris, but I’ll be bet you know where the Turin Shroud is!  The medieval city (and the church) made sure of that by incorporating it into all sorts of imagery, even though it had been challenged as a fake as early as 1390.  Carbon dating also places its origins in this period!

Still, why spoil a good story.  We may be more aware than ever of how fake news is spread but the phenomenon is not new.  Turin continued to trade on the relic, and in the 17th Century a special chapel was built to house it under the direction of Camillo-Guarino Guarini, an architect and mathematician of the region.   That mathematical brain was given free rein here as he incorporated all manner of geometric shapes into his design. The chapel interior, and particularly that of the dome is far more spectacular than a piece of stained fabric, though it has yet to overshadow its relic’s reputation in the way that Notre Dame does the crown.

And then in 1997 it caught fire.  Like the crown, the shroud was rescued, firefighters using sledgehammers to break the display and bullet proof glass that contained the cloth.  The shroud was safe, Guarini’s masterpiece was not.  The floor of the chapel was a metre deep in marble fragments and molten bronze.

The restoration of Notre Dame is expected to run to billions and Macron is predicting it will take 5 years.  Il Cappella della Sacra Sindone cost only €30million but required the reopening of an old quarry to match the black marble, the construction of an oil-rig-like scaffold inside it, and took 21 years.  The altar remains untouched; some parts charred, others burned away completely but the rest is magnificent.

I’m sure Notre Dame will bask in the sun once more.  If we’re patient.