A good week for a selfie…

Helle Thorning-Schmidt is Denmark’s first female Prime Minister, which seems strange to one who has closely followed the exploits of Birgitte Nyborg for some time.  Certainly, before this week, the fictional politician played by  Sidse Babett Knudsen was probably the better known in this country.  That all changed in an instant this week when Thorning-Schmidt, seated between David Cameron and Barack Obama at the Nelson Mandela memorial took a self portrait on her smartphone with her political colleagues squeezing in from either side.  The action proved controversial with some labelling it disrespectful on such a sombre occasion, whilst others pointing out that some elements of the memorial were anything but serious and that world leaders are only human too.

So there we have one reason for including a self portrait this week, but there was another.

Collecting my daughter Megan from university this weekend, I spent the evening in Slough, a town that gained notoriety for being the home of Wernham Hogg, the paper company that employed David Brent in The Office.  Another fiction of course, but Slough has never quite managed glamour.  In contrast, its near neighbour Windsor exudes it aplenty.   Eton, the Thames, the castle, and the Great Park all provide photographic opportunities, but I had something very specific in mind.   The park is vast, over 5000 acres of it, and as I’m unfamiliar with the area I set off early to find my location, which meant I was there to capture the sunrise.

All very well, but I was some distance from my objective so I returned to the town, parked my car and walked back to the spot that I was seeking.  Appropriately this is The Long Walk,  a driveway of over 2.5 miles that leads directly to the castle, but I didn’t need to cover the whole distance; I wanted Her Majesty’s second home to feature, and it was still early enough to erect my tripod and pose for a few shots without much interference.  The driveway itself creates great leading lines to the vast fortified palace.

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With still more time to kill to give Megan enough time to overload her suitcase I returned to my original location and focused my attention on the skies, partly for the cloud formations, partly for the passing air traffic, and partly out of a sense of curiosity created by the birdsong from the many trees in the area.  Most of the sound was familiar; crows, wrens, tits and more competed for my attention, but there was something incongruous amongst them.  More squawk than song.  I waited patiently to see if the culprit would reveal itself, but it wasn’t happening so I crept forward in the direction of the tree that I believed to the source.  My movement must have spooked the occupant, because a flash of green went shooting past me.  I fired off a few frames and there was my answer.  An alien visitor.  Or so I thought, because when I told Megan about it she was unimpressed, telling me that the area has flocks of green parrots that are numbered in the thousands.  Well I was surprised anyway.

So back to the self portrait.  As this year comes to a close, I’ve moved house, taken on a new job, but more than this my year has been defined by my search for romance.  Consequently I couldn’t resist the opportunity to recreate the cover of Elton John’s 12th album.  Not his greatest, but the title says it all.  A Single Man.APW_5161-Edit-2

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If music be the food of love…*

Last night I attended a performance by a small gospel choir, six women with a four decade span of ages and styles who rose above these differences to blend their voices into a largely homogeneous whole which was moving physically (you can’t sit still with gospel) and emotionally.  Music is a powerful phenomenon and one which we still seek to understand.  Is it uniquely human?   Bird and whale song suggest otherwise, but of course our greater consciousness sets our ability to scrape, strike, strum and blow alongside the human voice as something very different.

Gospel Shock, the ladies in question, sang with accompaniment for much of their set, but when they sang a cappella they were something special.  Amazing Grace was just that.

I read a comment on Facebook recently to the effect that “when we’re happy we listen to the music, but when we’re sad we hear the lyrics”.  There’s some truth in that, and when words and music are perfectly combined they can be truly powerful (but I’m not going to mention Joni today!) yet I wonder if in many cases our association with the words sometimes masks less effective musical performance or composition.  Having sung in many choirs and groups for about 20 years earlier in my life I know that if the music is right it can be truly spine-tingling in its own right.

In September 1997, the eyes and ears of the world were trained upon Westminster Abbey for the memorial service of Diana, Princess of Wales.  The media at the time were full of one musical performance that took place that day; Elton John& Bernie Taupin‘s reworking of Candle in the Wind caught the imagination of many who were moved by the lyrics, but for me that day was made memorable by another piece.  As the cortege left the Abbey, a plaintive, droning, almost discordant sound arose from the choir.  This was Song for Athene, and though the words, drawn from religious liturgy and Shakespeare’s Hamlet were just as appropriate, it was the sound that transfixed me.

John Tavener, who composed the piece, died this week just as he completed his final work Three Shakespeare Sonnets.   That tributes were led by his contemporary John Rutter speaks volumes; Rutter’s arrangements of Christmas Carols have always encapsulated that season for me.

I have no images of Gospel Shock (not wishing to distract either the singers or their “official” photographer, nor of Tavener, though with his flowing locks he would have made a great picture, but living in Durham means that you’re never far away from someone willing to share their voice…

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*Twelfth Night – Shakespeare

Collaborative

The creative muse comes in different guises; for some she provides a spark or shock that stimulates a radical result or new direction. Sometimes the force is less powerful and requires further input, such as an initial idea to build upon, or another brain to provoke and challenge.  A partnership can be very effective, where one party stimulates ideas from the other.

This is quite common in the music world; Leiber & Stoller, Goffin & King, Bacharach & David, Rogers & Hammerstein. Where would Elton be without input from Bernie Taupin? Of course when it comes to songwriting there can be a clear division between music and lyrics.

Visual arts are a different matter of course.  In trying to think of successful partnerships I came up with Gilbert & George… and then stopped.  There have been many successful collaborations over the years, often involving those from very different artistic backgrounds.  A recent programme on the art history of the Cote D’Azur reminded me that the French writer and film maker Jean Cocteau famously collaborated with Erik Satie, Pablo Picasso and Sergei Diaghilev to create the ballet Parade.  The creative equivalent of The A Team!

At first I struggled to think of examples of this in the field of photography, but of course I was missing the obvious.  In any photograph there is the interplay between photographer and subject, for even a landscape or a still life can generate ideas by the confluence of shapes and light, though of course it is most apparent in portrait photography.

Working with five models on Sunday really highlighted this to me.  I definitely fall into the category of a creative who needs that external stimulus, rather than pulling ideas from nowhere.  Consequently working with Jemma and Cassie seemed to work best for me; their input and interpretation took me in new directions.  Helen, who featured in the blog yesterday, is less experienced I believe and therefore more malleable.  Great for those with the fully formed idea in mind, not so good for me.

Amy-Leigh was very popular with many of the others shooting on the day, and it’s easy to see why.  She’s clearly beautiful, and takes direction well… from those who are directive.  I shot a number of poses with her in two locations and yet didn’t really feel I’d captured many original images.  This was confirmed when I came to process them and found that many needed to be cropped in very different ways to the way I had originally envisaged the composition and framing.  I wondered if I would have any decent images to share today.

As it happened I did.  She’s young and beautiful which are not bad  to fall back on!

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Food, Glorious Food

In Newcastle today I knew that I would find someone to photograph.  What I did not know was that this was the final weekend of the annual EAT! festival run as part of the NewcastleGateshead Initiative.

In the past the festival has included some great ideas (restaurants in people’s homes), some spectacular stunts (dining suspended from the top of the car park made famous in Get Carter) and some pretty strange ideas (did I dream the 3D map of Tyneside made from cake?).  I’m not sure what was on the agenda this year, but I knew I’d get some colourful images and these are in the gallery below. (click on the first image to open an enlarged slideshow)

Remarkably I managed to walk my away around many of the stalls without succumbing to the temptation of colours, textures and aromas.  Incidentally the chap featured in the header wasn’t present at the festival – he’s still somewhere in my garden unfortunately!

Anyway, before I reached the gastronomic gala, I had already found today’s portrait.  He was sitting outside the Theatre Royal having a drink with a friend, and the combination of hair, glasses, beard and T-shirt gave him a cool celeb-like look.  Sort of Elton John meets Giorgio Armani by way of Bruce Willis.  Actually he’s called Lenny.