Old Sites With New Eyes

I have on occasions been rather disparaging about my home city of Sunderland, particularly in relation to its attempts at public art. (Remember Ambit anyone?)

University buildings

So when the North East Photographic Network mailed me about an event they were running as part of the BBC’s Get Creative project, I felt I should be open-minded enough to go along. The event was a photo walk, a guided stroll from the university in the town to the National Glass Centre led by photographic artist Nicola Maxwell, who, together with the other photographers on the walk, might change my perspective.

Nicola’s own current focus (apologies but some photo puns are inevitable) is on found objects, inspired, in the same was a my Venice project, by the work of Irving Penn, and so before we set off she offered her supply of rubber gloves to anyone who wanted to adopt a similar approach, together with a stern warning not to touch needles!  Nothing to make me think differently about the place yet then.

Before long a small group of us were scouring the area beside the minster in search of interesting subjects.  Doorways, shadows, weeds and more were scrutinised for compositional elements which is when Nicola shared one of her interesting observations and one that did challenge my preconceptions.  The presence of mosses and lichen is far more noticeable in Sunderland than in nearby Newcastle, demonstrating that the air here is cleaner than in the neighbouring city.  One of the suggestions she made was that we pay attention to how the colours of these specimens changed as we neared the coast where conditions were even more favourable.

Was I tempted by the vegetation theme?  I fired off some shots but none that really pleased me.

Perhaps I should opt for more familiar territory?  A few years back I photographed a different individual every day in a doomed attempt to improve my portraiture.  That was back in the day when I didn’t really know what I was doing.   Looking at these guys at the pub in celebratory mood I’m not sure how much has improved, though my post-processing is less dramatic!

Then there’s a new attempt at public art, whose shadow I found more interesting than it’s actual structure.What about focusing on something grungier?  There’s certainly plenty to choose from, my favourite being the patch of solidified mud that included a single glove, and as seen here, a fork!

Since I spend so much time in other cities focusing on the structural this could have been the thing to get my creative juices going.

Not today however.  Venturing to the Glass Centre had brought me within easy reach of my beloved coastline so naturally I ended my trip there when the others were finished.  This being the year when lighthouses are a recurring them in my blog I thought to incorporate a little vegetation in keeping with the beginning of the walk.

The reality was that I’m more attuned to the simple pleasures of moving water and reflective wet sand.  I’m easily pleased.


An Alien Discovery

Another idyllic day on the Whitburn coast.  Perfect for a wedding, some cricket practice, or a little propagation perhaps.

Strolling to the shore I spotted something out of place here amongst this leisurely activity.  There was a man on the beach, working at a table.  What could he be doing, and why there?

I was here as usual to see what I might find of interest on and around the beach, and I wasn’t disappointed.  There’s a lot of driftwood about still, but you can create something a little less commonplace even with a single piece.As I drew nearer to the man it became obvious what he was up to.  Having written only yesterday decrying the artistic and cultural appetites of my fellow Wearsiders, here was an artist at work.He was painting the Fisherman’s Cottages, a landmark of the area, though one that I usually have at my back when photographing the boats in the lagoon.  He was Robert Soden, an artist who has been chronicling the changes within the City of Sunderland through his paintings for a couple of decades.  How ironic that I should meet him after yesterday’s blog, and even more so that he should provide one of my favourite portraits of late.

Thanks Robert.

The Eyes Have It – Part I

Before I was hit by the frustrations of a recalcitrant laptop yesterday I was out seeing some of the preparations taking place for this weekend’s main event; The Sunderland International Airshow.

In contrast with other similar events (like the one at Farnborough that punctuated last weekend’s wedding with the drone of tortured engines) the airshow is funded by Sunderland City Council and is free of charge to all who come (which on a sunny day is likely to be in the hundreds of thousands).

If the weather conditions are good then the event is a great spectacle, but if the sky is full of rain clouds then even the Red Arrows have their work cut out to be entertaining.

The council’s reasons for funding the event (and I have no idea how much that runs to) is twofold; provide an entertaining event that puts Sunderland on the map, and in doing so provide opportunities for local businesses to benefit from the human traffic that it generates.

To begin with there are the show people who arrive with rides that will provide the thrills of speed and altitude to those who aren’t performing in the show, and these are certainly fairly local.  Chances are that those providing some of the infrastructure for the day are local suppliers too,

but the economic benefits clearly spread further than the North East.

Keeping so many people supplied with food and drink is a very lucrative opportunity, so I wasn’t surprised to see a bar being prepared.  I was surprised to see how far it had come however.  Walking around behind it I could understand why though, it wasn’t just a bar, but a pub on wheels, with a room behind with chairs and tables!  There can’t be many of these in the country never mind Sunderland.

Just then a girl who was helping with the preparation of the bar appeared, and agreed to be my portrait of the day, but despite my shooting several attempts, she was determined to squint her eyes to virtually closed, and because of her glasses I didn’t notice, so despite her great smile the picture doesn’t do her justice.  Sorry.

She told me her name was Annie, but it’s probably Anica or Ana as she’s Romanian.  Now that is spreading the wealth.

It’s just a rumour that’s been spread around town*

The City of Sunderland grew out of the merger of three separate settlements of Anglo-Saxon origin, although the fishing village that originally bore the name wasn’t officially recognised until a century after the arrival of the Normans.  The name Sunderland probably derives from the Anglo-Saxon word soender, meaning to part or separate, and refers to the gorge carved by the River Wear as it reaches the sea.  (The other two settlements were Monkwearmouth, site of a monastery since 674 AD, and Bishopwearmouth, founded in 930 AD when King Athelstan donated the land to the Bishop of Durham)

The first Wear Bridge in what was then a small town, was built in 1796 and was a catalyst in the development of the community.  The present bridge is much more recent having been built in the 1920’s.  Most people who cross the bridge will do so without noticing that there is a set of steps on either side giving direct access to the riverside.  Those on the south side are gated and locked, but on the north side there is still access.  In the heyday of shipbuilding this stairway would have seen a lot of use, giving easy access to what was North Sands shipyard.  Nowadays it probably sees more graffiti artists, though I was surprised to see these lads dismount to carry bike and fishing tackle down, instead of the easier option of cycling slightly further downhill to the riverside.

Before beginning my first “real” job, I worked in the shipyards for about three months after leaving school.  I spent most of my time at Deptford further upstream, where the vessels first took shape, though I also visited North Sands, where they were moored for fitting out after the initial launching.  The SD14 cargo ships designed and built in Sunderland were produced on an almost monthly basis for 20 years.

All of that is gone now; the great concrete base of one of the cranes supports a sculpture representing the regeneration of the area.  Etched into the ground, an anamorphic projection reveals the shadow of the crane that once stood in that spot.


This area of heavy industry is now given over to education and culture;  the former being the St Peter’s Campus of Sunderland University, the latter in the modernist architecture of the National Glass Centre

This is an appropriate location for the Centre; Sunderland has a long tradition of glass- making which goes back to that monastery established in 674.  Part of the design of the building required specialist glaziers to be brought from France and this was when glass making was introduced to Britain.

Most of the visitors to the Centre probably give that little thought, being drawn primarily by the quirkily named “Throwing Stones” restaurant, and the glass roof which you are encouraged to walk upon.  Those not of a nervous disposition can look down onto the diners two stories below.

Here it was that I met the Scots trio of Sarah, Allan and Bill just as they were leaving the building.  Whilst I prefer solo shots I saw an opportunity to group them using the ramp to bring them close enough to leave no gaps in the composition. I fired a half a dozen frames as they laughed, but in one of them I caught this expression from Bill which I felt deserved to be processed as today’s main image.  I trust his friends will forgive me.

* Lyric fromShipbuilding written by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer, recorded by Robert Wyatt.

Robert Wyatt – Shipbuilding