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!

Site for Sore Eyes (Pt III)

The third and final jaw dropping moment I experienced in Sicilian churches was not in one of the UNESCO World Heritage Site listed buildings; it was the Jesuit Church of the Gesú in Palermo. This is not Arab Norman (hence its exclusion from the list), and being constructed during the 17th and 18th centuries is very much of the baroque, but it is an astonishing building all the same.

But I won’t be sharing it with you.

The church is an extravagance of multi-coloured marble bas-reliefs that demand your attention. Unfortunately the church authorities demand that you take no pictures (and even had a young lady hiding behind pillars to catch any who would transgress) so all I can recommend is that you look here, or better still go and see them for yourself.

I’m assuming the decision to prevent photography is based on revenue.  (There were no worshippers present to disturb, and being flashless and running on silent mode I’m discrete anyway).  By keeping control of imagery the church can presumably sell postcards and other publications, but I do wonder at the logic.  I didn’t buy anything, but if asked to pay a photographer’s fee (as I’ve done in cathedrals such as Ely or Bologna) I’d be happy to do so.

Instead I will share a little about Santa Caterina; a church with some similarities (though built before the Church of Gesú) but which left me feeling a sense of distaste rather than wonderment.  Appropriate that it should therefore form one side of the “Square of Shame” that I wrote about recently.

Before I entered the body of the church to view the multi-coloured marble there I took a short tour of the rest of the complex; a female Dominican monastery where I and another visitor were accompanied by both a tour guide and a security guard!  Perhaps understandable had we been granted private access to the contents of the cathedral treasury, but here we were taken to rooms where the emphasis was on frugality, so what was being guarded, and from whom?  The last sister left about 5 years ago I believe.

At the heart of complex is a cloister with a beautiful fountain, which we were able to view from the balcony of one of the monastic cells and here was quite a contrast.  Plain rooms with a bed, a tiny wardrobe, a desk and a small cross overlooking the majolica and greenery outside…. but only if you were of a wealthier background and could fund the room with a view.  On the opposite side of the corridor the walls adjoined the streets outside and so no balconies here in case there should be any contact with outsiders.  Unsurprisingly the desks bore bibles, but also knotted cords with which the occupant could beat herself.  I’m sure I spotted a cilice in one room.

The indignities that these women faced were made clear one more as our tour took us to the room where they sang as part of the church choir.  Raised high above the nave of the church they were effectively caged; able to look down on the congregation but unable to interact in any way.  The male voices in the choir were at the opposite end of the church so no chance of fraternisation there either.

Many think of baroque magnificence when Santa Catarina is mentioned, but despite the polychromatic decoration it reminded me more of a prison, where there was one remaining piece of inhumanity.   Just to the right of the altar there is an opening in the marble with a rotating wooden platform within.  Here the unmarried mothers of the city would place their child and then see it disappear as the platform turned and the baby was taken into the monastery.  No one was telling what happened next.

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…

The Second Elizabeth.

Portrait of Elizabeth I at Hardwick Hall

For centuries England had been ruled by kings, and then Henry VIII produced two daughters who would each sit on the throne. Mary’s rein was relatively short and largely forgotten by many but for her persecution of religious dissenters. Her sister Elizabeth’s era is legendary by comparison. She was an exceptional woman.  And yet there was another Elizabeth whose life overlapped the Virgin Queen’s and who also exercised a great deal of power.

Bess of Hardwick

Elizabeth Cavendish gained wealth and influence through a series of high-profile husbands becoming the richest woman in the country after her queen.   Amongst her many accomplishments she built is associated with not one, but three great houses.  Her final home, Chatsworth, is perhaps Britain’s best known stately home and continues to be inhabited by the Cavendish family to this day.

Old Hardwick Hall

She is better known as Bess of Hardwick, and it was at Hardwick Hall, in the same county as Chatsworth, that she was born, but there are two Hardwick Halls here.  The original is now an empty shell, but alongside it is the replacement that Bess had built as a more fitting statement of her power.

This is amply demonstrated by the number of windows in the structure, despite glass being an extravagance at the time.  The chimneys are built into internal walls to provide more glazing opportunity so that it was said of Hardwick:

Hardwick Hall, more glass than wall

The title she acquired from her fourth husband (Cavendish was the second) was Countess of Shrewsbury, and the exterior of the building leaves no doubt that this was Elizabeth Shrewsbury’s project.  Look closely at the roofline and the letters ES are far from subtly displayed.

Internally there are the usual furnishings of the period (though understandably of better quality than average) and a great number of tapestries, many of which it is believed she worked on herself.  (Mary, Queen of Scots, was at one time held at Chatsworth under house arrest and the two apparently sewed together.)  Most notable are the “fyve pieces of hangings” representing noble women who Bess perhaps saw as role models.

These are now part of an intricate restoration project which will hopefully see all back on display at Hardwick, though appropriately one of those already there is of Penelope, wife of Ulysses who refused to consider suitors until she had finished her own tapestry (which she unpicked every night until her husbands return, 10 years late, from the Trojan War).

The Cavendish arms feature three stags or bucks heads, and stag references are prominent throughout the building, though when you reach the Great Gallery, the deer are joined by elephants, camels and more in a stunning plaster frieze around the room.  There is little doubt that this was a room designed in hope of a visit from Bess’s namesake given the decoration over the fireplace.  Even the second richest woman in England had her betters!

The Good, The Bad, and The Not So Ugly (Enna I)

It’s shortly after lunchtime in a Sicilian hill town when the predators begin to gather in the otherwise empty streets.

A stiff breeze blows eddies of dust and detritus into neat circular deposits.  A soundtrack by Morricone is required.

The common lizard that hurries in and out of the cracks in the pock-marked wall of the cathedral need have no fear however, even though many of the hunters will be focusing their intention here.  For now though the man with no name rests before the action begins.  Van Cleef strolls nonchalantly.

A smaller group breaks off, largely unnoticed by the majority and makes for richer pickings.  I am one of them, and find myself with serious company.  Some hunt in packs, whilst others operate alone but with more fearsome weaponry than I might muster.  Hired guns among them.

Some adopt a sniper’s eyrie, effective but inflexible for moving prey; others shoot from the hip.

They have come from far and wide in search of rare quarry, but what would bring so many together here?  On a Friday in March?  Though it was my birthday, this wasn’t a photographer’s party.

It was a very different celebration, but one whose nature I won’t reveal.

At least not just yet.

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

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.