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.

 

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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!

Baytown

On the day that Bernardo Bertolucci died, one of the articles I read contrasted his and Marlon Brando’s behaviour on the set of the notorious Last Tango in Paris, with a present day pairing of comparable stature; Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis.  Coincidence of course, but I’d spent a gloomy morning in Robin Hood’s Bay on the Yorkshire coast, where the Victoria Hotel is the setting for the protagonists meeting in Phantom Thread, ostensibly Day-Lewis final film and one written and directed by PTA.

For a film set in the world of 1950’s Haute Couture, the choice of North Yorkshire for the designer’s “place in the country” seemed a strange one (300 miles away?) but perhaps Anderson’s location scouts were concerned with the look rather than the practicality.  I’m pretty sure the film doesn’t say where this location is supposed to be, other than on some wild and windswept coast.  It certainly lived up to the billing when I was there.

Now despite the name, Robin Hood’s Bay has no proven links to Robin Hood.  (How could it when there’s no evidence that he actually existed?)  The locals make little or no reference to archer of Sherwood and in fact refer to the town simply as Baytown or Bay despite the fact that Robin Hood has been part of the name for seven centuries!

There’s been human activity here since the bronze age, but the activities that made the town were nautical; fishing and smuggling, the latter benefitting from that remote location.   In fact this tiny place was economically more important than Whitby in the 17th century.  Perhaps though I should say tiny places, for RHB is a town in two halves; one down by the sea and sheltering behind a solid sea wall, the other atop the cliffs, windswept but safe from stormy seas.

Interestingly the two halves have different personalities.  Originally the lower town was home to the fishermen and smugglers; small houses, stacked tightly on the steep contours either side of the beck that bisects Baytown.  This creates a network of narrow alleyways that were perfect for hiding from excise men or press gangs.  The town’s own website claims that “a bolt of silk could pass from the bottom of the village to the top without leaving the houses”.

In contrast, those who lived on the cliff tops were the sea captains and ship owners.  Men of greater wealth and influence whose houses were larger and spread further apart, but nowadays there has been something of an economic inversion.  Robin Hood’s Bay is now a tourist trap; the smaller dwellings are mostly holiday cottages and second homes, whereas the upper town, being more remote from the beach is less attractive B&B territory, with cafés and bistros.  And that hotel.

 

 

 

Rock Follies

Some months ago I wrote a piece about Studley Royal water gardens, and how they were created by John Aislabie when he retired from government in disgrace at the end of the South Sea Bubble Affair.  As Chancellor of the Exchequer he was greatly responsible for the scheme which was intended to refinance public debt but lead to the financial ruin of many and enormous damage to the economy.  (As Britain faces Brexit we have a Chancellor who is luke warm about the process but seems powerless to prevent it – will he suffer a similar fate?)

Perhaps suffer is the wrong word to use in conjunction with Aislabie however because though his mansion no longer survives, it is clear from the expense he incurred developing the gardens at Studley that he was not financially ruined.  What I did not know was how much the reverse was true until I discovered recently that the 18th century leisure park developed by Aislabie and his son was far more extensive.

Continuing the down the watercourse from Fountains is the Seven Bridges Valley, where small stone structures criss-cross the stream running through a steep-sided gorge with more follies along the ridge.  It’s nowhere near as beautiful as Studley (which is perhaps why the National Trust don’t include it) but Aislabie’s guests would enjoy carriage rides across the little bridges as part of the whole experience.

But then I discovered Hackfall Woods, six miles away as the crow flies, but another steep valley populated by small stone structures which was also part of the Aislabie estate.

Arch Brexiter, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s father published a book describing how influential individuals might prosper in a future world of financial chaos, and his son seems bent on bringing that to fruition.  Taking the long view, I can’t help but think that there’s nothing new in this world.

My own financial situation has changed for the worse of late when I was made redundant, but all of these sites had something that is still free to me and is far more beautiful.  The natural world.

I’ve nothing against the stone follies.  I do object to the political ones.  But I managed one of my own.

Studley is a deer park home to three herds; fallow, sika and red deer.  And visiting in the autumn means the deer are in rut.  The stags are pumped with testosterone, and far more aggressive than usual.  Recommendations are that you keep at least 100 metres away.

Walking along the Seven Bridges Valley the air resonated with that growling belch that stags make at this time of year, but I thought they were all up on the ridge above me.  Until I rounded this tree and got a bit of surprise.  I stopped dead and let him move away though I didn’t take my eyes of him for a second.  I was glad of the metal cages that protect some of the trees trunks as I figured they would give me a start if I needed to climb.  Luckily he didn’t see me as a threat.

 

Lacking Inspiration

I’ve been less than kind about my home town of Sunderland’s attempts at public art and architecture, though the posts were so long ago that I feel safe in raising the issue again, because the town’s decision makers just keep doing it again.

The Millennium may seem a long time ago now, but it was a time when many cities around the UK marked the occasion with new constructions, and many, perhaps seeing it as a metaphor for the passage from one period of time to another, chose to build bridges.  London has its famous crossing between Tate Modern and St Paul’s, Glasgow built the Clyde Arc and the Tyne was crossed once more by structure known to many as the Eye.

None of them were actually open on 1st January 2000, and in fact they all needed extra work to stabilise or protect from shipping but each has become a landmark.

The Eye “winking”

Sunderland opted to join this bandwagon by announcing an international design competition in 2005, which among the entrant included one from Frank Gehry, whose buildings around the world are icons of design (Guggenheim Bilbao, Prague’s Dancing House, Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture) to the extent that there is a phenomenon of economic regeneration that such buildings produce called the Bilbao Effect.

Tees Infinity Bridge

I’ve no idea what his entry was like, but he didn’t win.  Instead a design from Spence Associates was chosen.  I’m not really up on who the power players are in the world of architecture apart from a few (Rogers, Foster, Lloyd-Wright, Hadid, Piano and of course Gehry) but I’d never heard of Stephen Spence.  He played a part in the design of the Tees Infinity Bridge (another in the spate of white bridges) though his input was bitterly disputed by a partner firm at the time.  I suspect Gehry’s design was too radical (missing the point Sunderland).

Even the Spence option scared them, so they commissioned a design for a cheap and basic option, then sat on their hands for three years before inviting the public to choose between the two.   Spence won and the council backed the extra expense on the grounds that an ambitious design would attract more business to the area.  Years of failing to secure funding and willing contractors followed and it seems the council lost their nerve again.  In 2013 they dropped the Spence design.

Five years later they have a bridge; The Northern Spire.  The council website makes no mention of the designer.  It’s the tallest structure in the North East of England (size isn’t everything guys) but that’s about all that can be said for it.  I don’t see people flocking to the city because of it and bringing that regeneration.  Perhaps voting Remain to protect their biggest employer (Nissan) might have been smarter.

Funnily enough, just upstream from the bridge is a reminder that big ideas involving concrete aren’t always money spinners.  Slowly (very slowly) decaying on the riverside is a concrete boat.  Yes, a boat made from concrete.  It never caught on.

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…

Beningbrough Rule Bending Pt I

Having moved home in the last year I have a new area to explore and of course that includes some new National Trust properties that I’ve visited before, and even despite my disagreement with their drone policy two of the houses in North Yorkshire won me over with some special exhibits.

The first was Nunnington Hall; a largely 17th Century country house which was hosting a display of work by the finalists in the British Wildlife Photography Awards – how could I resist?  The images are all copyright of course so I can’t show them here, but they gave me some impetus to explore a new area of photography which I shall expand upon in the second part of this post.

Many of the shots were captured by the intrepid “camp out all night to see hares in the dawn mist” type, who must surely be professionals with bottomless pockets to fund the long telephoto lenses used in most of these shots.  I’m not denigrating their skill or commitment, but as these are shots that I don’t envisage myself ever taking I was happy to admire them but not inspired to follow suit.

In contrast the category that really did impress me was macro photography with incredible close up shots of insects revealing incredible detail but seemingly achieved with quite ordinary equipment.  I went straight out into the ground to shoot close ups of their flowers!

My second “new” discovery was Beninbrough Hall; a much grander Georgian mansion set in sprawling ground where cattle and sheep graze freely.  Beningbrough has a close relationship with the National Portrait Gallery, and so continually displays pictures from that collection, though these change in line with important themes.  In timely fashion this year is focusing on creative women, and so there are paintings and photographs of the likes of Judi Dench, Darcey Bussell and Amy Winehouse, though my personal favourite had to be one of the smaller works; Neil Wilder’s photographic portrait of JK Rowling.

With no opportunity to take that inspiration outside and begin photographing famous authors I was off to the gardens in close up mode again, but with one exception and act of rebellion.

A walk along the River Ouse gives an opportunity to view the Hall in the context of it’s grounds, though even at some distance it is difficult to capture a truly representative shot because of the many trees that can obstruct the view.  Time to get airborne again!