Let’s Talk

When I was driving in Sicily I opted for listening to podcasts rather than music as I found them less distracting at those times when the challenges of navigating an unfamiliar vehicle, on the opposite side of the road to the UK and with handbrake and gears similarly on the right rather than the left. One of the items that I enjoyed was called Double Talk and celebrated the value of dialogue in a world where we increasingly live in the echo chambers of social media choices that reflect our existing views rather than engaging with those who have different perspectives.

I know from my own work that I’m most effective as a trainer when my approach is discursive rather than a lecture, and this programme drew on perspectives from those involved in philosophy, the law, music and other backgrounds to demonstrate how new thinking is created by the push and pull of two-way conversation.  I’m as guilty as anyone of the one-way “push” approach; this blog, my Instagram account and my ViewBug gallery all share my view of the world, and rarely does this lead to any interaction beyond the self-gratification of looking for “likes” or similar.  My blog entries rarely attract comment or debate.
Historically if I was running a training course, the breaks would see a rush of people leave the room to attend to their caffeine or nicotine addictions, but now more often than not they stay put, reach for their phones and enter browse mode.
I suspect that Sicily (and perhaps Italy more broadly) could be bucking that trend.  I’ve never been so aware of people actually talking to each other.

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In every town or village I’d encounter groups of old men in serious conversation on benches in parks and piazzas.  Perhaps it’s the weather in the UK that discourages this but I’ve never seen so many men in conversation.
There are road users aplenty who flout any laws relating to mobile use, and yes I see drivers on their mobiles in the UK but never as frequently as in Italy, where the many moped users are often seen steering one-handed, their mobile clutched tightly in the other.

The great thing was that the Sicilians were all talking; even when putting their phones to use, they were vocal, allowing their feelings to be heard in ways for which no end of emojis can compensate.

Well nearly all.

Voce del Popolo

In the current climate where #metoo and #blacklivesmatter seem to be heralding real change there are some interesting debates about historic artworks; either because they represent people or events that are now seen as offensive or because the behaviour of their creators has been equally unacceptable.  Consequently we have seen calls for Confederate statues to be removed or destroyed (watch out Mt Rushmore), a memorial to a conscientious objector taken down, complaints about paedophilia to the Met in NY, a Manchester gallery see-sawing over whether to display a painting of naked nymphs, a some sexually active buildings planned to neighbour the Louvre given a firm “non” in Paris.  Acclaimed work by Woody Allen and Kevin Spacey is now viewed very differently, but should we be able to separate the artist from their work; or see historic events as milestones in our journey to who and where we are?

Perhaps the greatest concern with this and so many debates today is that the clamour for change is stoked by social media where arguments snowball as a result of knee jerk outrage rather than any considered judgement.

One of the largest open spaces in Rome, is the Piazza del Popolo, and though it was originally named after the poplar trees around the area in modern Italian it means People’s Square, and now that it has been pedestrianised it would be the ideal place for public gatherings, or in the current climate would that run the risk of becoming a mob?  This was until the 19th century the site of public executions.  Italy has recently begun to suffer from populist politics too with racial attacks in a country that has long been more tolerant than many European neighbours.

Most people who visit the Piazza notice the twin churches that flank the opening of Via del Corso, the Rameses II obelisk and Egyptian styled fountains at the heart, and the steps that lead to the house and gardens of the Villa Borghese.  The city gateway at the north of the space, the Porta del Popolo is quite anonymous by comparison, but even this has more impact than the church that adjoins it.  I wonder what proportion of the popolo venture through the door?  They should.

There are a multitude of reasons to do so; a chapel designed by Raphael, a scattering of Bernini sculptures, and a macabre moment or two, but for this photographer there is one draw that will always overshadow the others.

The altar in the Cerasi Chapel features a work by Carracci, a promising painter of his day but it is rendered invisible by the pieces on either side by another up and comer; Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.   Caravaggio’s realism and use of light and shade were surely precursors for every dramatic photograph.
His work here demonstrates another aspect of his character; both works proffer a backside to his rival.  This is relatively subtle in The Crucifixion of St Peter, and the saint’s legs and feet are the attention grabbers; old, dirty and anything but idealised.

Turn to the Conversion of St Paul and there’s no doubt that he’s showing the horse’s arse to his rival.  So Caravaggio was irrepressibly cheeky (excuse the pun), but his disregard for authority went much further.  Gambling, fighting, an illegitimate child and eventually murder featured on his charge sheet.

Time to take down and destroy the Caravaggio’s?  How do we then differ from the monument destroyers of ISIS?



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.

Money Prevailed.

Just a few kilometres from Stourhead is the historic village of Maiden Bradley; a quiet and unassuming place that many pass through on their way to the Stourhead estate.  Here in 1617 was born Edmund Ludlow into a line of politicians.  Like his father Henry, Ludlow was a strong advocate of parliament, but also a staunch republican.  At the age of 27 he was commanding forces in the English Civil War, and in 1649 was one of the 59 signatories on the warrant of execution for Charles I.  His memoirs have become an important historical account of that period.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever read them, but I’d be interested to get inside Edmund’s head to understand his motivation, for in 1644 he and his forces ransacked Stourhead manor house, which was then the property of the Barons of Stourton.  Was his action against a neighbour driven by jealousy, justice, religious intolerance (William Stourton was a catholic) or order from Cromwell?

I don’t know the extent of the damage, but in 1714 the Stourtons sold the property, and shortly afterwards in 1717 their manor house was demolished and the new owners (the Hoares) began the development of the estate that we see today.

Taste is a funny thing.  Ruskin hated the elaborate decoration of baroque architecture and decoration, but I love it (why else would this atheist spend so much time in Italian churches?).  And yet here at Stourhead, everything felt a little de trop.  The pillars and mouldings seemed more appropriate to a larger structure.  The fireplaces screamed for attention.  The architraves too.

The artwork gives some clues.  Room after room you see pictures featuring buildings from antiquity, many of them painted in the picturesque and romantic styles and drawing on Burke’s philosophy of the sublime.  The Hoares were clearly striving for some ideal which found its way into their house and ultimately their formal gardens.

In 1902 the house suffered a fire which gutted the interior, though many of the heirlooms within were saved.  Unlike  Studley Royal however Stourton was completely rebuilt and restored to as close a replica of the original as possible.  The Hoares need to present themselves to the world as aesthetes was clearly paramount.  Their library incidentally contains Lady Alda Hoare’s collection of Thomas Hardy novels, she being a friend of the Wessex writer.  (Were country houses the Facebook pages of their day?)

The restoration cost must have been significant, but no matter, for the Hoare family were bankers, and owners of the country’s oldest private bank.  Their money couldn’t buy everything however.  The last member of the family to own Stourhead, Henry Hugh Arthur Hoare, had outlived his only son and heir who was killed in action during the Great War.  He bequeathed what was to become one of their most visited properties to the National Trust in 1946.  As for Ludlow, he died in Switzerland in exile following the Restoration.

Stourhead House, Wiltshire

Unrelated piece of trivia: If you recognise the building you may have been a fan of sixties TV series Thunderbirds; Lady Penelope’s mansion was a scale model copy.

Marshall McLuhan, Casual Viewin*

*Broadway Melody of 1974, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway – Lyric by Peter Gabriel

I spend a lot of time looking at photographs.  Too much time.  I look for interesting locations to shoot, inspirational techniques or shooting angles, creative ways to process images, striking poses, dramatic lighting, inventive models and more.  I even look just to enjoy the image sometimes.

I’m not alone of course, and this post follows yesterday’s as a reflection on the power that images play in our lives.  Marshall McLuhan’s birthday was recently honoured with a Google Doodle (explained here), and though the intellectual’s ideas fell from favour in the latter part of his life, they now seem particularly prescient.

I don’t have a Facebook profile for reasons described in my previous post.  As a medium for promoting the “look at me and what a great time I’m having” message it creates a distorted view of the world which is frequently cited in mental health issues such as depression, eating disorders and associated body image.  The medium is the message indeed.  Seth Stephens-Davidowitz has recently published a book about how we present ourselves to the online world.  It’s called Everybody Lies.

I’ve been a member of a number of dating sites since my divorce, and this is another area where image becomes important as part of the message, and in interesting ways.

I’d originally planned to illustrate this post with some example images from dating profiles (anonymous of course) but even then felt that the people concerned might be unhappy with my interpretation of the message they presented, so this will be a post without pictures (other than the pixelated header) where I share my philosophy on why people might use images that singularly fail to show them in their best light to a possible suitor.

  1. It was shot somewhere nice.  For this reason the picture brings back happy memories and so there’s a “halo” effect that obscures the fact that the subject is too small in the image to be actually seen, or so backlit by bright sun that they are reduced to a featureless silhouette.  (And at my age, most of our silhouettes aren’t what they used to be!)
  2. I look really cool in this shot.  Yes those sunglasses look stylish.  Your hat is wonderful too, but you are now completely unrecognisable.
  3. I look really young in this.   The lines in your face have miraculously disappeared because the shot is overexposed, blurry, or you have processed it through an app on your phone.  Perhaps the reason is because you’ve posted an old photo where you were young!  Assuming that the viewer of your profile doesn’t see through this subterfuge, they are in for a real disappointment when they meet you.  I usually do see through it and ask “what are they hiding?”
  4. I’ll apply some Snapchat filters.  Presumably to show what a fun and “down with the kids” type your really are.  Sorry but making yourself look like a dog, a deer, or a hula girl is ok for teenagers.  They’ll grow out of it.  You don’t have that excuse and it has the same effect as #2
  5. I’m still really hot so I’ll flaunt it.  This is an interesting one.  I’m not one of those who believe that a rape victim in a revealing outfit was “asking for it”, but reading many women’s profiles they almost always feel the need to explain that they’re not looking for one night stands or casual sex, which suggests that there are a lot of guys who have that expectation.  That being the case, the bikini shot, the low-cut top or the short dress and fishnets might not be the best opening gambit!
  6. I look really miserable in this.  The excuse for such an image is usually “I haven’t got anything better”.  Sorry but we all have camera phones these days.  If you can’t do a decent selfie (that includes me) ask a friend.  The message this conveys is of someone who can’t make the effort.

So if you’re planning on any online dating beware – a picture is worth a thousand words. (Or about 750 in this case!)

Which brings me to another finding from Seth’s research, and one which perhaps belies my claim to be applying a photographers eye to this process.  The biggest factor in whether a man wants a second date with a woman is her appearance when they first meet.  And for women?  Men should shut up and let them talk about themselves.   If only it were so easy!


Fake News & Little Fictions

2016 was a momentous year.  A watershed.

History may look back on it as the point where we all woke up to the power of social media as propaganda, or the point where the role of good journalism in digging out important stories, establishing the truth and educating the world to that truth became irrelevant.

In the UK for example we had the spectacle of the “leave” campaigners touring in a bus emblazoned with a claim that was blatantly wrong, deliberately misleading, and of course undelivered in the period following the vote.  Our media failed to express sufficient outrage (partly due to the vested interests they represent) and experts who demonstrated the “truth” were dismissed as irrelevant and unreliable.  Opinion was more important than reality.

I’m not close enough to the American political system to comment in detail about Trump’s rise to power, but it seems that something similar happened.  Regardless of which group he demonised, insulted or ignored, the electorate seemed ready to ignore that in favour of promises and dreams with no underpinning detail about how they would be delivered.

Is the world so full of woe that we find fantasy a more palatable alternative.  Has this become Marx’s opiate of the people?  Perhaps the global response to Game of Thrones was a clue.

Last year I went to Croatia for a marriage ceremony.  Or rather I didn’t.  Over the summer a number of events in Jane’s life brought sufficient pressures that we cancelled our civil ceremony in this country.  We had planned to follow that with a symbolic event in Croatia with close friends in attendance, and so rather than cancel everyone’s summer holiday we went ahead with this event that was intended to symbolise our relationship.

We had a great location, local musicians, fantastic weather, and lots to eat and drink.  What we didn’t have was a marriage and perhaps with that knowledge the pressures that had been building before the event took their toll, and in the weeks after our return, even our friendship cooled, sputtered and eventually ended.  (Jane did agree to my posting this)


What has that to do with fake news?

In the midst of all of this, one of my daughters posted her pictures from the Croatia trip to Facebook.  One of which showed Jane & I in character as bride & groom.

Twelve months later and people still ask how married life is treating me.  The power of a single Facebook posting supplanted the reality.  I wonder how many times that has happened in the more important events that have, and continue to take the world by surprise?  Are we just so lazy that a photograph or an internet meme becomes sufficient evidence upon which to base important decisions?  Do we accept what we see with our eyes instead of engaging our brains?

Imagery is powerful and it was Facebook’s reaction to an image that saw me suspend my profile there, when they blocked a post by the Norwegian Prime Minister that incorporated the famous “Napalm Girl” image.  Mr Zuckerman’s people simply saw child nudity.  If the original publishers of that image had also taken such a superficial view then one of the most influential images of the Vietnam conflict would never have seen the light of day.

Perhaps it stems from our leadership.

Maybe the day will come when Trump explores the facts before he reacts it will serve as an example to the world.  I’m not holding my breath.



Thanks to Dani McLachlan who was the Sorcerer’s Apprentice capturing some of these shots on the day.  She even made me look ok!

Addiction? Affliction? Or Going With The Flow?

Can I confess something to you?

You might already suspect as much but I think I’m gradually becoming aware of a problem.

I’m taking too many photographs.  The combination of intellectual challenge in planning an image, the excitement of loading my results for viewing onto a larger screen and then the satisfaction of having produced something that I find pleasing to the eye (well my eye at least) is clearly releasing too many endorphins.

I’ve recently been corresponding with an adviser to Durham University about something called “flow”, a term used by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi to describe the ultimate state of job satisfaction (though it isn’t restricted to work).  Co-incidentally the man in question, Simon Williams, shares not just my surname, but also my interest in cycling, music and photography!

So I’m blaming flow for the fact that as I walked along the beach this morning I realised that I had at least two blog posts to accompany images from Fleetwood that I haven’t written yet, one from the Berwickshire coastline, half a dozen from various National Trust properties and their surroundings, and three from a Sunday morning at High Force.  And that’s before I think about the remaining blog posts from Genoa which should take me up to the end of the year (at which point I’ll be in Rome and about to start over!).  Somebody board up my doors and throw away the key!!!

The trouble is that I like to photograph almost anything.  And so in the couple of hours that I spent on the beach at Blackhall I was at it again…

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Actually I blame wedding photographer Jasmine Star, who asked where we find inspiration on an Instagram post this weekend.  I had to go looking!