Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

…was my favourite artistic experience of my recent trip to Rome, where a Hokusai exhibit was consigned to the basement gallery of the Ara Pacis museum.  Apologies if you’ve arrived here expecting some new insights into Japanese woodblock printing; I chose the title because I was constantly reminded of the collection as I drove around Sicily, where the white triangular cone of an active volcano dominates the landscape in a similar way.  Fuji may be about 12% taller, but both are classified as “ultras”, prominent peaks that stand alone and dominate the surrounding landscape.

This isn’t immediately apparent from the Palermo side of the island, where mountains encircle the city and the Madonie range provides a further barrier to the east, but once you venture into the interior it’s surprisingly easy to spot the cone, particularly when the winter’s snows remain on the summit.  Consequently I expected to easily exceed Hokusai in capturing different evocations.

Unsurprisingly both of the volcanoes have their places in mythology; Fuji in Shinto legends and Etna in Greek, where Hephaestus, blacksmith to the gods, had a workshop beneath the peak (despite other stories that detail how Zeus imprisoned a monster in the same location) and Polyphemus the cyclops lived on its slopes.  Perhaps less well-known is that Etna has another name (Mongibeddu in Sicilian, Mongibello in Italian) which links it to Arthurian legend (Mongibel being home to Morgan le Fay).  What was the legendary English King doing in Sicily????  They’ll be carting St George off to Genoa next!

But back to my journey.  As I travelled further east, so it became easier to spot the peak, though not so to photograph it since in the towns it would be screened by buildings and in the open spaces in between there were few places to stop along the road.
It’s an impressive sight from wherever you view it, but I think burdening you with 36 views might be a little too much…

Postscript.  Seems I’m not alone in being moved by Hokusai, so in fairness to Van Gogh…


Beningbrough Rule Bending Pt II

So back to this new fascination with macro photography that I mentioned in part one.

Though none of my nudes have ever been explicit, it seems far less controversial to shoot close-ups of sex organs when they belong to plants, and so I’ve spent a good many hours this summer getting up close and personal with flowers, whether growing wild or in gardens… or in a vase in my kitchen.  (I’ve been in and outdoors shooting nudes too, and have continued that discussion with the two models concerned, who both actively embrace the genre.)

As you may have gleaned from the first part of this post; the driver behind this interest in the small world (and now I have THAT SONG in my head) was that it didn’t require a huge investment in special lenses and that came as a huge surprise.  I’ve owned a macro lens for several years but none of the shots I’d taken with it ever seemed close enough, yet reading the captions of the photographs at the exhibition told me they were shot with similar equipment.  It was time for some serious research.

A bit of reading introduced me to some new equipment (macro tubes) and new techniques (focus stacking) which seemed easy to try.  The first are a set of different sized connectors that are placed between lens and camera which have the effect of enabling the lens to get closer to the subject and they are so cheap.

Now I was getting somewhere, but then the closer you get the more another difficulty becomes apparent; getting the subject in focus.  Without being overly technical, photographs are a compromise between how much of the space between lens and background is in focus and the time the shutter is open (I’m ignoring the use of ISO here to keep it simple) but basically if you want everything in shot to be pin sharp then you need a longer exposure.  Fine if you’re shooting a building or a landscape but add a gust of wind to a flower and you’ve lost it.  Go to the opposite extreme and you can shoot quicker but the depth of field can be so small that when the tip of a petal is in focus the rest of the flower is not;  focus stacking means shooting a range of images that focus on a range of points and then blending them in photoshop so that the whole subject is sharp.  I haven’t cracked it yet, but this image of a feather shows the potential for the technique.

I’ve also embraced some of that blur as any creative should.

And then I discovered something else.  Reversing lenses.  This is how some of those amazing images had been captured with what seemed like very ordinary glass.  Using a special adaptor you can fit a lens backwards to your camera, enabling a wide-angle lens to do the reverse; become so narrow that it enlarges the subject.  Combined with those extension tubes and a device to move a small flash up to the subject too and I’m ready to go (even if the camera does look like feel more cyborg than I’m used to.)

And so back to the riverside at Beninbrough, with a flash in the wrong place and a lens on backwards to make some new naked friends…

Can’t see the wood for the trees? (Musei Vaticani Pt I)

In 1969 the BBC broadcast a six part series called Civilisation which celebrated the development of western art and culture. Though originally envisaged purely as a means to demonstrate the capabilities of newly introduced colour TV, the series had a major impact for many. I was only 10 years old at the time, but still possess the book that accompanied the series and though Sir Kenneth Clark’s erudite views may have gone over my head, I now find myself 50 years later visiting and enjoying many of the great works that he selected to be featured, despite taking no interest in art whatsoever whilst at school.

Belvedere Apollo. Marble, Roman copy of 130–14...
Belvedere Apollo. Marble, Roman copy of 130–140 CE after a Greek bronze original of 330–320 BC. Found in the 16th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The series has attracted criticism in the intervening decades for its fixation on the art of Western Europe after the middle ages, something that the BBC is trying to address in the new series Civilisations which both delves back to the earliest evidence of human creativity and has expanded into Asia, Africa and the Americas in its scope.  Nevertheless I was fascinated by Mary Beard’s episode about the way we depict ourselves in art and her reference to the Apollo Belvedere, a Roman statue based on a Greek bronze that is displayed in the Vatican, and was once help up to be the epitome of the classical aesthetic, an ideal that continues to influence us to this day.

Watching the programme I was sure that I had recognised the Apollo’s quality and captured it on my recent visit, but a quick scan through my Vatican imagery proved otherwise.  It was not in the Sala Rotonda as I had thought but now languishes in a corner of the Octagonal Court.  I may well have missed it altogether.
And that is the problem with the Vatican Museums.

In their 50+ rooms and literally miles of corridors there are some 20,000 works on display, and of course as the collections of the successive heads of the Catholic church they are of great quality.  But how many of the millions who pass along those corridors each year miss a masterpiece (like me) in their haste to reach the Sistine Chapel (unlike me).

The Sala Rotonda features a number of colossal classical statues dominated by an enormous bronze Hercules around which most of the visitors crowd for pictures, drawn by the size and colour of the work, but have they noticed the room itself (designed to replicate Rome’s Pantheon), or the quality of the other works which are nearly 2000 years old?  What about the enormous porphyry basin at the centre?  It has become little more than a roundabout to guide the human traffic but is also from Ancient Rome, as are the mosaics on the floor which were moved from their original site to this room in the 18th century.  Even in such a magnificent setting so much becomes invisible, so heaven help Apollo in his plainer open courtyard.
Back in 1969, Sir Kenneth Clark described its fate:

…For four hundred years after it was discovered the Apollo was the most admired piece of sculpture in the world. It was Napoleon’s greatest boast to have looted it from the Vatican. Now it is completely forgotten except by the guides of coach parties, who have become the only surviving transmitters of traditional culture.

Which is perhaps why I shot The Braschi Antinous instead.

Blindly Navigating Feminism

I wanted to write about something that has been niggling me for a while; a niggle given greater weight by the events of 2017 and the reactions that continue in 2018. What’s more, because this is a personal cause for rumination I run the risk of becoming self-indulgent. Bear with me if that’s the case, but be at liberty to share your thoughts and feedback.  This ordinary middle aged man is not alone in being vexed by this; the open letter signed by French women this week, and the reaction to them in the media is a case in point.

I might have been tempted to begin with “As the father of daughters…” but I’m aware that this is seen by some in the feminist movement as indicative of a man claiming understanding of something he can never have experienced. I’m not. I share the fact as context for the fact that it’s of great importance to me that women should be able to make their way in the world without fear of sexual harassment, inequality of treatment or worse.

So I have a personal interest in feminism, and yet I suspect that for many I’m part of the problem because I love photographing women, and by its very nature photography objectifies. What’s more I enjoy the intimate process of retouching that reveals every “blemish” or “imperfection”, but straight away I’m in trouble because the language we use implies that women have to be perfect. And yet how is the retoning of a patch of blotchy skin any different from applying make up, which she might choose to do herself?

There are those who would say that that “choice” is driven by a pressure to conform with the expectations of a patriarchal society; and perhaps in that respect the glamorous visage has parallels with the niquab, though the outcomes are poles apart.

So am I objectifying women? Certainly not as sex objects. Titillation isn’t my goal. This blog is called a photogenic world because it features subjects which I consider beautiful, so in that respect I am objectifying women, by including them amongst posts about other objects; lighthouses, gargoyles, lancet arches and men. Yes I photograph men too; recently winning both categories in a ViewBug challenge about senility with two different images of men. I don’t photograph so many but there are many reasons for this.

For a start there are fewer male models operating in my patch; and some of those that are seem more driven by a desire to show their genitalia than because they have anything particularly aesthetic to share. That brings me to a second reason for their being fewer men, and here I am guilty as charged. I’m a straight guy, and therefore find it easier to detect facets of beauty in a woman than a man, and so would struggle to create a great image of a man when I don’t really know what I’m looking for. That said Michel Roux Jr is still top of my portraits wish list! (Ok, jointly with Kristin Scott Thomas).

Which brings me to nude photography; surely an exploitative pursuit where paying photographers push the boundaries of powerless models who perpetuate male fantasies? There are those who think so; remember the fuss over Emma Watson choosing to show a little flesh in Vanity Fair? It’s a contentious issue and one that has divided feminists for some time as this Guardian article demonstrates.

At the heart of this debate is imbalance of power. Tina Brown recently wrote that in all the years she knew Weinstein he never once made advances. As the editor of Vanity Fair she was free of any authority he may have held over his victims.

So let me tell you the story of a photo shoot that attended recently. The studio owner who arranged it and provided tuition on the day made all the decisions about sets, outfits, lighting and time allowed to each photographer. Strict contractual terms were signed for the benefit of photographers and host. They also decided that the model should be topless or naked for most of the looks and how she should pose. So who wielded the power? The studio owner for certain. They just happened to be called Natasha and be the model too.

This self-assured and intelligent woman, who has successfully modelled internationally for many years chose to collaborate in the production of beautiful images. Now if only I could find a male model with the same resources.

And now I’m in danger of becoming flippant.  Again I’m not.  I take the subject seriously, which is why this ordinary man thought it worthwhile in sharing his perspective however insignificant.  It’s all part of the debate.

Wet Feet & Waterfalls

My last set of Teesdale images for the time being. I’d visited the area because I wanted to shoot waterfalls, and in particular some long exposure shots that allow the spray and streaming water to blur into milky whiteness. A bit of a photography cliché but I didn’t have that particular T-shirt.

The trouble with High Force and Low Force for these sorts of shots is just that they’re too forceful! Blurring their torrents just gives you uninspiring blocks of white, whether you go for grandeur or intimacy in your framing. The volume of water passing at speed over those rocks is so great that it probably needs very little additional time with the shutter open to achieve those effects and with the weather being changeable I didn’t want to spend time exploring such subtleties.

I returned to my car then with lots of nice shots, but not what I came for, so I drove a little further to the Bowlees Visitor Centre where the much smaller Bow Lees Beck runs down to join the River Tees. Something gentler proved to be far more suitable.

Following the path upstream the landscape was a lot more shady; making for great contrast with white water, and also providing different sorts of plant life in the environment.

With plenty of places with easy access to the stream, it was also possible with some judicious choice of stones beneath the surface to make my way into the flow to set up my tripod in the stream for better angles.  Only occasionally did my choice fail me and provide a wet sock or two.

This was much more like what I had in mind but there was still a bonus in store for me.  The pathway continued to the point where Flushimere Beck and Wester Beck converge to cascade over a limestone cliff where a small cave has been created by the erosion.  Local legend has it that an outlaw in the days of the Tudor monarchs took refuge in the cave to escape from law enforcement.  Perhaps the cascade had more power then but on the day of my visit it didn’t provide much in the way of cover.  Nevertheless Gibson’s cave bears his name to this day.

The cascade itself is Summerhill Force, and despite my earlier wordplay has nothing to do with the energy within the water; force in these parts is a corruption of the Norse word “foss” which means waterfall and dates back to the days of Viking settlement here.  The numerous dramatic falls in Iceland still bear this suffix.

Finally the force was with me!

Teesdale Detail

So with only the “specific details” category left to demonstrate, what subject matter might I choose, especially given that I wasn’t travelling with a macro lens to get up and close and personal?  Luckily my 70-200mm telephoto comes a close second for this type of work and so I set to capturing the world around me, which inevitably included the river once more!

It’s clear that this shot represents the borderline between intimate landscapes and specific details, and the more I look at it, the more I’m inclined towards the former, though the fact that the spray of individual water droplets shooting downstream is capture perhaps justifies my decision to include it here, but let’s move on to some examples that are less open to interpretation.

Shooting flora is becoming a new pleasure of mine, and this is where I would have struggled with the macro, the day was quite breezy, and the narrow depth of field that a macro produces would doubtless have required dozens of shots just to get one in focus.  With a little patience waiting for the wind to drop I captured these and was quite happy with them.

That same breeze that challenged me with the flowers did at least compensate me by creating waves of changing light in the grasses away from the river

Detail shots are often about textures and water, wood and stone as well as the wind I was bound to find interest if I looked closely enough (which is surely the point of nature photography on this level after all).  Trees that have been twisted by decades of winds following the valley downstream provide subject matter, as do the lichens that adhere to them.

Then there’s the wildlife.  On my way downstream I encountered a mole scurrying around in the grass, and though I fired a few shots the beast was uncooperative in revealing eyes or snout so I was left with a lot of black fur which I won’t share here.  Having looked down I then looked up and was rewarded by the sight and sound of a curlew in flight and at range I’d not experienced before.  (They’re usually invisible or highly camouflaged on misty moors,  or nervously keeping their distance with other shoreline dippers and dibbers).

Even a single boulder might be worth a shot, if mother nature has chosen to decorate it nicely.

I was clearly more in my element now and aside from these shots captured two favourites from the riverside:  one as I had crossed the river to return to my car.  The other walkers who passed me must have questioned my sanity when I chose to lie flat on the ground and begin shooting along the woodland floor but the rewards are there for those who look closely.

My other favourite came a little earlier, near to High Force itself where a simple wooden fence post had become the site for nature to establish a good hold and create a world in miniature.  All together now… “It’s a small world after all, it’s a small world….”

Teesdale Intimate

High Force, Teesdale

Apologies to those who arrived here with the expectation of something salacious; perhaps the works of fellow bloggers Chloe Thurlow or Lisa Purr might fulfil a need.

Instead this is the second of my three groups of images captured on a Sunday morning along the upper reaches of the River Tees.  There is an obvious problem with this means of categorising pictures; where do you draw the line that separates one category from another?   You see to my mind, the shots of High Force using the telephoto capture more of the water’s violence and are thus more striking and awe-inspiring so more fitting with definition of the word grandiose.  In photographic terms though they can’t be classed as epic in scale, which is how grandiose is usually understood.

With that in mind perhaps none of the images in my previous post count as grandiose, though they are more obviously landscapes than the shots I’ll share today.

It immediately becomes apparent that this category offers greater variety of imagery, or perhaps that is more of a comment on this stretch of the river where you can encounter moments of still reflection that are in complete contrast to the explosive forces upstream.

There are other cascades of course, but these are of a nice manageable size.

Turning away from the Tees there are plenty of options on the route alongside:

The trouble is that I don’t really see any of these as “intimate”.  Perhaps I should follow the links in my first paragraph too!

I can understand that these taxonomic distinctions may help others understand more about the nature of your subject matter, but in reality they add very little.  And how close do you have to get before you tip over into the third category “specific details”?

I neither know nor care really, though I’ll have a go in my next Teesdale post.  For now though I’m content to simply know what I like…