Flying North


I’m staring right into the light
And I’m drawn in like a moth
And I’m flying North again…

Thomas Dolby – Flying North

To be fair, I wasn’t flying.  I’d driven to the first of my three stops this morning, but the moment I stepped from the car into wind ripping along the North Sea coastline, becoming airborne was a distinct possibility.

My “home” beach is of course the elongated bay of Whitburn, Seaburn and Roker, but since moving away I’ve visited a number of other stretches of golden sand in search of something to point my lens towards, so this morning took me to spots that I’ve never visited before, despite being a resident of the North East for all of my life.

Emerging from the Tyne Tunnel I began in Whitley Bay, a town famous in my youth for its amusement park; the Spanish City immortalised by Dire Straits.  When I worked in Whitley Bay 20 years ago it was closed and decaying; the seaside resort becoming better known for its pubs and clubs.  This era too has passed, Newcastle greedily snapping up the Geordie Shore element in its endless maw of happy hour bars.  My objective was a little north of the town, the island of St Mary’s and the lighthouse upon it are iconic to photographers, so it was an obvious target.

The lighting and sea conditions weren’t going to provide anything truly outstanding, but I managed to snatch a few HDR shots before the wind was joined by rain and this was not the place for a camera to be abroad.APW_5400

I stopped next at Seaton Sluice, but have been here before so grabbed a single image to evidence my return, but with the driving rain continuing took little persuasion to hurl myself back into the shelter of my car.APW_5413_4_5-2

By the time I got to Blyth, the rain clouds had been pushed out to sea and the sun was shining.  I’m far less familiar with Blyth, though in the past its residents have been notorious for drug use, providing a steady stream of residents for HMP Acklington a little further up the coast.  Attempts to regenerate the town, have focused on the beautiful stretch of coastline that it possesses, and the installation of two rows of beach huts has generated more interest than could possibly have been imagined.  I felt obliged to shoot them, but it was the shore that I loved so much.

Blyth, Beach Huts
Blyth, Beach Huts

The lighthouse, breakwaters, and wide open skies were beautiful.  I’m sure I’ll be back.

But there was more to explore still.  Newbiggin boasts an artwork which required a far greater degree of investment than Blyth’s wooden shelters, yet it has proved to be highly controversial.  Sean Henry‘s Couple, a painted bronze of a man and woman staring out to sea seems innocuous enough, and even though they represent a view of North Easterners that some feel falls a long way short of aspirational,  his work Man with Potential Selves in central Newcastle draws very little criticism, or indeed attention.  What makes Couple so different is the scale.  The figures are set on a large white platform on the town’s sea wall, making them hard to ignore if you are looking out to sea as so many of us do, hard to ignore because each of these figures is as tall as a double-decker bus.  APW_5646

Sadly it was one of those artworks that left me unmoved, though the sculpture has featured in some beautiful imagery, though inevitably it is the sea and sky that provide the drama and the pictures work in spite of rather than because of the sculpture.

Nevermind.  My memory card already held something truly beautiful, at least to my eye.  It features the first of my pitstops, but shot from the third.  Even the iconic St Mary’s can provide a shot that stretches way beyond cliché. (It’s worth clicking to view as large as possible)

St Mary's Lighthouse, from Blyth South Beach
St Mary’s Lighthouse, from Blyth South Beach

Grace under pressure

The BBC launched an interesting online experiment today which is set to run for the next two years. It aims to assess our ability to handle pressure and consists of a series of repeated tests interspersed with hints and tips from Olympic athlete Michael Johnson.

Michael Johnson Victory in Sydney 2000 Françai...
Michael Johnson Victory in Sydney 2000 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At first glance it seemed that this would measure nothing more than the effectiveness of Johnson’s input as the test is repeated time after time, but there is also a lot of other data being collected about the emotional state of the participant, before and after the test is run.  The Beeb are labelling it as “the biggest ever study of the psychology of pressure”.  Size isn’t everything Auntie!

The timing of this test is interesting, featuring as it does one of the leading lights of the corporation’s athletics commentary team, just as the London Olympics are looming.  Arguably this is promotion by the test team to get the maximum number of people interested, but it could just as easily work in the BBC’s favour by reinforcing a public belief in the expertise of their pundits.

Pressure’s a funny thing.  My personal view is that it doesn’t take too much pressure to be detrimental to my performance, but that without some degree of it I’m not always motivated to act.  A bit like red wine, a little can be good for you, too much can be disastrous, and we all have different levels of tolerance.  Our definitions of what creates pressure are all likely to differ too – some people would crumble if faced with giving a formal presentation to a group of say 100 people; whereas some wouldn’t give it a second thought.

My decision to write a daily blog in 2012 is an example.  If shooting portraits for a client then I’ll consider factors like setting, lighting, expression and posture, but all of these elements come to nothing if I can’t establish some sort of relationship whereby the individual reveals something of themselves to me.  Without that, I have merely a snapshot, and to be fair that has been true of some of the images I have captured so far.

Getting that connection, and timing the shutter release to capture it was my goal, and as they say “practice makes perfect”, so targeting myself to shoot every day and publish the results created the right element of pressure to see it through on days when it has been cold and wet, on days when I get a few refusals, on days when I don’t immediately “see” a face to shoot.  As a result I’ve found I’ve developed a style for my street portraiture (different for men and women I think) and feel more confident when I’m working with people on more exacting projects.

Today’s pressure was generated by a short lunch break and the darkening skies above, so I didn’t go all the way into town, stopping instead by a pedestrian crossing that was close to a car park.  First learning point – half the people you encounter at a pedestrian crossing are focused on getting across the road rather than be interrupted by a photographer.

Time was ticking and it would have been easy to start approaching anyone who passed, but as always I wanted someone who would have made an interesting picture.  Resisting the pressure paid off for just as I was about to leave I met Chris and Tamara, either one of whom would have made a good solo picture, but being a mother and daughter it was easy to have them close up the dreaded “gap in the middle”.  There was even a twist on the common response when Chris said “I’m glad I put my make up on”!

Nice picture. No pressure.

Alien encounter

In the early 1990’s I recall a certain amount of local press outcry that a short stretch of the north-east coastline was being used as a location for shooting a major Hollywood film.  A strange reaction you might think, since film locations are often celebrated as tourist attractions.

The film was Alien³, for me the weakest story in the Aliens vs Ellen Ripley canon – creating an alien style whippet* (or should that be a whippet style alien) was plumbing the depths, but this wasn’t the reason for the hubbub.  After all, at the time it was assumed that this was going to continue the box office success of its predecessors, though it lacked the directorial might of a Ridley Scott (who was born in this region) or a James Cameron.  No, the reason for the outrage was that Blast Beach at Dawdon was to chosen because it was so polluted that it was felt it looked other-worldly.  The sands there were blackened by the colliery spoils that had been dumped into the sea for a century at nearby Blackhall (appropriate place name!) and other collieries of the Durham coalfield.

The extent of the pollution (which can be seen taking place at the denouement of another celluloid vision, Get Carter) was such that damage to the ecosystem extended offshore for four miles.

Two decades later and a huge clean up operation has tackled a 12 mile stretch of the coastline to regenerate the damaged landscape during which over 2 million tonnes of coal were removed.  It has been a huge effort, but one still dwarfed by the forces of nature that work the local coastlines.  Coastal erosion is commonplace, requiring the National Trust to fence off long stretches of otherwise beautiful cliff-top here in South Tyneside to protect walkers from succumbing to the crumbling cliffs and emerging blow-holes.

So when the combined might of wind and wave are felt it is no surprise that the beautiful beaches of Whitburn and Seaburn are often coated in seaweed torn from its littoral moorings, but this week we have that combined with a heavy layer of black coal dust, though we are a dozen or so miles north of the former dumping grounds.

The rains today have been so heavy that the beaches and cliff-tops have been largely deserted. Bad news for me as a photographer, good news for the man tasked with clearing the sands of the marine debris.  The gardens must be welcoming it too.

Anyway, for most of the day my portraiture prospects were looking as grim as the skies above, but persistence paid off, and another natural force brought a surprise to our coastline.  Standing at Minchella’s ice-cream kiosk were an attractive couple called Stuart and Julie, and when asked if either would be my subject for the day both agreed.  It turns out that Julie originates from here, but they now live in Portsmouth.

Toney Minchella’s recipe must be pretty special to get customers from 350 miles away!

*Thinking about it, perhaps the whippet was an attempt to curry favour with the locals of East Durham, who in my experience love this breed!