Cupboard Love

This year will be memorable for a series of new experiences, new experiences that to date have not born fruit.

The ups and downs, the hopes and fears, the fun, the disappointments, the joy and the pain have all been part of my online dating story.  A volatile emotional cocktail.

But through it all there is someone who I can count on to hug me tight, kiss me on the cheek, give no quarter to sadness and regularly give of her time.

Collecting her from school today I set to making some comfort food for the provider of this comfort.  She’s eaten some great cottage pies in her time that weren’t of my making, so this staple winter warmer was not to be taken lightly.  I placed my faith in a brunoise of carrot, shallot and celeriac to add flavour, together with a generous topping of mature cheddar and Dijon mustard potato.  It wasn’t pretty, but that’s not the point is it?  It hit the spot for me, and more importantly did the same for Holly.

APW_1064Given that she’d come straight from school, was still in uniform and had had her hair tied up all day, she wasn’t really prepared for a photo session, but she’s my daughter and obliges her father on such occasions, even when we had nothing but a table lamp for lighting as she perched on the end of a sofa.  Low light means image quality suffers in the service of avoiding camera shake but despite this Holly shines through.

Thanks H.


Customer Satisfaction

In my day job all week I’ve been focusing on impressing the employees of a Japanese manufacturing company with the importance of giving great customer service as the only long-term way of differentiating themselves from their competitors (products being so easy to copy by determined rivals).  We’ve considered whether the customer is or isn’t always right, and concluded that it doesn’t really matter.  They are the customer, they have a problem, it’s our job to solve it.

It’s ironic therefore that I ended up with a dissatisfied customer of my own this afternoon.

On getting home from work, I noticed that my eldest daughter Megan had some make up on, having been shopping in town.  Now Megan is a reluctant participant in my search for beautiful pictures, and if she doesn’t feel 100% happy with her look will usually refuse any requests.  Today was one of those lucky occasions when she felt able to confront the lens, and for me to put my new-found knowledge of the MKIII autofocusing to good use (after a bit of serious reading last night).  Positioning her to take advantage of some nice soft light coming through a north facing window I took one shot and nailed it.  No further shooting required.

A little cropping and processing the raw file and very quickly I had what I considered to be a beautiful shot.

I posted it on her Facebook timeline, and almost immediately it attracted a positive response from one of her friends.

More feedback followed saying how gorgeous she looked, but Megan’s response to this was “I don’t like it!”  though when pressed she couldn’t explain why.  I sought a second opinion from her sister Holly, who hadn’t seen the picture at that point.  Logging onto Facebook we found that the image had gone.  It seems that the customer had voted with her feet!

Lucky then that I still have this outlet to share the image…

Megan Williams
Megan Williams

The Eyes Have It – Part II

The bright skies that so afflicted Annie yesterday were still with us today, which bodes well for the flyers planning daring routines for the weekend.

The wind is still strong however, and the forces that are lashing our shores might provide challenges for the RAF Falcons parachute display team.  Landing on a cliff top in strong winds out of a stacked formation might be asking too much.

Those same forces drew me down to the bay in Whitburn today, hoping for the chance of something interesting with the boats in the lagoon.  Instead I found Natalie, out walking her dog.  Despite those winds tugging at her hair she provided another beautiful smile.  But the eyes make it.

No, I want an ark with a big room for poo.*

*Eddie Izzard – Noah’s Ark routine.

When I wrote about the changing weather conditions yesterday I had no idea what I’d unleashed!  I was aware of the gathering clouds overhead, and even shot a few (which served to remind me how badly my sensor needs cleaning!), but thought it to be no different to any other thunderstorm.  (Hard to tell, but these are colour images btw.)

Here in Whitburn, it didn’t even rain that much, and we live on a hill so why worry about the weather… except for the fact that my sister-in-law Dawn and her husband Roy were landing at Newcastle Airport and expecting me to be there to pick them up.

“Better leave early” I thought, “the roads all get a bit slow when things are wet.”  Master of the understatement as it turned out.  As I was leaving I heard that the A1, one of the three main routes between here and the airport was closed in one direction due to flooding.  Best switch on local radio to keep up to date in case it affects the other carriageway I thought… which is when the scale of this issue began to sink in.  Radio Newcastle had cancelled their usual broadcasting schedules to focus entirely on the disruption caused by flash flooding in the region. 

It wasn’t long after that that I encountered the first signs…  (Check out the wording of the poster on the right of the pair outside the church.  Rich!)

Testo’s roundabout is the point at which I would normally have to make a choice between the three cross Tyne routes.  I soon realised that the Tyne Tunnel was also out of the running.  It was closed in both directions, with stationary traffic tailing back the three and a half miles to the roundabout.  Remaining option – drive through Newcastle, with its undulating central motorway a likely receptacle for more flood water.  Joy.

I’d needn’t have worried myself – the next 7 miles were going to be more interesting that the centre of town as I soon found out…

I soon came to a standstill in heavy traffic, and as I crawled along had to contend with the challenges of communicating with Dawn and Roy, who were having problems with their mobile phone, my wife who was expecting to meet them later, and her parents.  Using mobiles, landlines, and even transatlantic facebook messages via Canada, we explored the option of finding hotel accommodation at the airport, but every room was booked.

No choice but to continue the crawl through the stinking waters.

Listening to the radio the stories of people pulling together in a crisis began to flood in (sorry), as did tales of the devastation caused by a relatively short spell of rain.  The same vehicles would creep by on the right for a few yards, before being passed again as my lane of traffic took its turn to inch forward.  My companions were the radio presenters, the anxious eyes of an Asian girl in the mirrors of the mini in front of me, and the pursed lips of the woman in the VW behind.

One of the worst affected areas was Heworth, a transport interchange where buses couldn’t get through the water and the trains were all cancelled.  Nevertheless people had made their way here, only to have to walk the remainder of their journeys home.  Cars were submerged in the car park, and the only way around some of the floods was to take a detour through the cemetery and then find a way to climb out over the walls.

Slightly further on and the damage being done to road surfaces began to emerge.  The cost of the clean up operations in homes, schools and businesses will be vast.

Power failures affected tens of thousands of homes, and in Felling the cars would frequently part (Red Sea-like?) to allow the passage of emergency vehicles, squeezing through on their way to evacuate people to safety from flooded residences using inflatable boats. 

All in all it took me 3.5 hours to reach the airport, a journey that should take about 45 minutes or so.  Remarkably I found a route back which included no hold ups whatsoever.  Bizarre.

Having dropped Dawn and Roy off, I returned home almost 5 hours after I had left, hearing on the radio the story of a young girl who, on her final day of work in Newcastle had been presented with a bunch of flowers that she had carried home all the way with her.  She had walked the miles from Heworth to Sunderland, climbed the cemetery wall, detoured through gardens and made it home at 22.45 with her flowers intact.  What a coincidence then that I should find myself sitting next to her in the hairdressers today!

Gabs is not my portrait though, for in one of those periods of total standstill I decided I should photograph one of those who were doing battle with me.  Anxious eyes or pursed lips?  I went for the lips and Karen agreed to be photographed.  Ironically the sun was now shining at its brightest and streaming through her windscreen created some harsh patterns of light on her face, but it did put some great catchlights in her eyes.  Thanks Karen.

Thankfully no evil giraffes about!

“a little fermented curd will do the trick”*

As I approach the half way point of my year long quest to capture a portrait per day I’ve noticed that men and women approach the process differently.

Most men have agreed to have their picture taken without question – I almost have to force the information upon them about my blog and the project.  I was going to say that I could only think of two who had refused, but as I typed their stories a third sprang to mind, and then a fourth.  Rather than turn this into something akin to Monty Python’s Spanish

Nobody Expects The Spanish Inquisition
Nobody Expects The Spanish Inquisition

Inquisition sketch, lets just accept that they have been less frequent than women.  Not very scientific, but that’s the impression that I have.

Women are more likely to respond with the “hate having my picture taken” riposte, or occasionally the “not without my make-up on” defence.

A lot of the guys just stare straight down the lens almost as if refusing to contribute to the process.  Ironically I tend to get more out of these pictures as without a cheesy grin I’m left with a face that betrays more about their normal demeanour.

Women almost inevitably smile.  Would they do the same if I was a female photographer?  I don’t know.  Is there a woman out there doing the same thing who could share their experience?  I’d be interested to know.

Anyway the point of all this is that today I was surprised when the young Nigerian girl I had found for today’s picture asked me whether she should smile or not.  I told her I didn’t mind and that she should just give me whatever look she felt comfortable with.  When she hesitated I suggested she smile, shot a few frames and then asked her for a more serious look.  This can sometimes have the reverse effect of producing uncontrollable laughter, but in Ola’s case she had a moment of inspiration, turning her head to one side and hitting me with magnetic eyes that were a little reminiscent of Sophie Okonedo. 

Makes you wonder why photographers have historically gone to such lengths to get people to say cheese.

*from Monty Python Cheese Shop


You’ve got a friend in me

Randy Newman – You’ve Got a Friend in Me (From Disney/Pixar’s ”Toy Story”)

I’m not here today – this is virtual me writing from a location somewhere in the past.

I’d better explain.  Today my friend, colleague, mentor and sounding board Marilyn is marrying Paul and all my energies and attention will be focused on photographing the event which I’m honoured to be doing.  This makes a daily portrait blog a little challenging though, because while I know I will have lots of great pictures on my memory card, I’ll not have the resources to upload any, or the time to write any accompanying text.  You’ll have to wait a day or two for that blog.

Today is a cheat then.  I took the photograph a couple of weeks ago, and as I don’t think it fair to keep someone I’ve photographed in the street waiting more than a few hours I needed to take a different tack, so I called upon the services of a willing model who hasn’t featured in the blog so far this year.

The funny thing is that phrase “willing model” because last year I photographed a series of portraits of her at home as a surprise for her husbands birthday, and she was every bit as uptight and self-conscious as Jade was last week.  We were there for a couple of hours, and you could probably have written off the first 30 minutes together with the false smiles and strained neck muscles that went with it.

The session had a transformational effect though.  As soon as she had viewed the pictures she had a Damascene conversion and in her words “will pose for anybody now”.  What’s more she doesn’t mind how much I process the resulting imagery.  (We’ll not mention the roots Jack!).

So when my wife arranged to meet Jackie for a drink recently I saw my chance, and shooting outside the pub for a couple of minutes before the serious girl-talk got underway I shot some pictures that made the most of the evening sun in her enormous eyes.  I had a choice between going for the whole arty portrait look or something a bit more natural, but why choose – let’s consider it a favour returned and use both!

“A little bit special…”

Street portraiture is a hit or miss affair.  Either your subject is comfortable and willing to proceed or they’re not, and in the latter case why would a complete stranger persuade you otherwise?  Yes, there are probably some silver-tongued charmers out there who would push just to get the picture, but underlying my approach is a longer term view.  If my subject is happy with the process (and the eventual outcome) then they might just come back to me when they need a photographer in future.

Today’s subject is a bit different.  I’ve known her for a few years because she is a colleague of my hairdresser, so not a close relationship but the ice has long been broken.  She’s an obvious choice for a beauty portrait for her dark hair (of whatever hue she chooses this month!) frames a pair of brown eyes so dark and sparkling that they are like highly polished precious stones.

Clearly I had to include her in this portrait a day project, but here is the challenge.  She really doesn’t enjoy having her photograph taken.

This is a common feeling, but unlike working with complete strangers I’ve been able to plant the seed in good time, suggesting that I photograph her the next time I was in for a haircut. Her colleague Julie added her backing so there was no backing out.

Last Friday the day arrived, and I took her to the rear of the premises to shade her from the harsh light, and thinking that she might feel less self-conscious away from Julie.  There’s a lesson here for those who feel uncomfortable with being photographed – trust the photographer!  Although uncomfortable with the process she followed my directions until she spotted Julie at the window at which point the nervousness erupted into laughter.

English: Jade, an ornamental stone. White and ...

In all I shot 7 version of the same pose within a couple of minutes.  Hopefully not too much of a hardship for her.  Joking in the salon later, she was able to see the funny side, and we talked about suitable titles for today’s blog; “a little bit special” or “precious”, not out of any vanity on her part, but because her name is Jade, so it was the highly prized ornamental stone that we were talking about.  (Actually stones would be a better noun, since there are actually two geologically different rocks that were assumed for centuries to be variations of the same green material).

So was the moment of discomfort worth it?  Ultimately Jade must be the judge but I’m very happy with the result.  Her eyes may not be jade green, but you wouldn’t change them.  The background colour will do nicely though.