A change of tack (Venezia 1)

Just back from a trip to the City of Gondolas, and didn’t read Thomas Mann, Ian McEwan or even Michael Dibdin while I was there so I guess I’m out of love with words at the moment (regular readers are exultant at this point!).

I did however obtain some artistic inspiration; the Palazzo Grassi couldn’t be more different from Gateshead’s Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in its outward appearance and internal fabric, but it’s purpose is the same, and at the time of writing I couldn’t have been more fortunate in finding inspiration from its exhibits.

The first, entitled The Illusion of Light, 

explores the physical, aesthetic, symbolic, philosophical and political stakes of an essential dimension of human experience that has also been, since (at least) the Renaissance, a fundamental element of art: light.

This alone provided some moving and entrancing art, but it was not the main attraction for this visitor.  The upper floor featured

a collection of 83 platinum prints, 29 gelatin silver prints, 5 colorful dye transfer prints and 17 internegatives

these being a sample of the celebrated 20th Century photographer Irving Penn‘s most famous work, though some of the images have not been shown to the public before now.  Penn’s subject matter is varied; Vogue models, artists from other fields, tradesmen, Hell’s Angels, skulls and cigarette butts have all produced work of great technical and aesthetic appeal, to this photographer at least.  What unites them is that they are black and white, or more accurately monotone, for it is here that his genius is most manifest; through his printing skills and combinations of metallic salts he has imbued the images with clarity and tonal beauty.

Which gave me an idea.

I tend to prefer monotone portraits for the picture then becomes about the structure and shape of a face, the elements that speak to me of character more than hue of skin or eye, but could I undertake a project that would challenge me to produce images with complex and busy subject matter without relying on colour to differentiate them?  There’s only one way to find out.

Consequently I’m going to undertake another 365 Project, attempting from the 1000 or so images that I captured, to produce a daily image of Venice portrayed in monochrome.

Now to be fair there will be repeats; not of the same image, but for heaven’s sake how do you not end up with several gondoliers, numerous churches and religious symbols, and a good smattering of piazzas?  So for the next 12 months I will publish an image a day that represents something about the city; wide shots and tight details, culture and trash, fashion and fascism, people and places.  If you’ve never visited the city (or the Lido where some of the images were taken) they’ll deliver all of the clichés but maybe a few surprises too.  To this pair of eyes they give a flavour of Venezia in a way that seems strangely appropriate.  The regional dish here is pasta al nero di seppia; white spaghetti or linguine in a sauce of cuttlefish ink, the cephalopod that gives us the brown pigment sepia.

So here’s image number one; part of the display in Irving Penn’s Resonance exhibition; 21 animal skulls.

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Just a quickie

You’re stuck in traffic.

There’s nowhere to pull over.

Even if you did, the rain is pouring down.

Your view is partially obscured anyway.

But the light is still amazing…

and when the birds align…

what the hell…

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Foster Care

I felt sure I’d written about The Sage before, but a quick search of old posts suggests that this curvaceous beauty has been restricted to supporting roles so the spotlight is long overdue.

I love visiting this building; as often as not there’s good reason for that as I’ve seen some fantastic performances there over the years, but the amazing building always plays her part.  She’s 10 years old now yet still impresses me every time I see her, prompting J and I to speculate on how long it will be before she begins to tire in the same way that the Sidney Opera House has done.  There’s no sign yet.

Foster and Partners were the lead architects responsible for her design, the multi award-winning architects who have produced a few favourites from these pages; the Millennium Bridge (Thames not Tyne), the Hydro in Glasgow, as well as some that have escaped my lens; Wembley Stadium,  the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court at the British Museum, and the Gherkin (more properly 30 St Mary Axe).

There’s so much to love about The Sage beyond her great sweeping curves, and for me it comes down to the care taken over the details as much as the dramatic impact she has on the Gateshead skyline.  Glass and steel architecture is nothing new (see my recent blog from Canary Wharf) but the reflective surfaces here face skyward and converse with the heavens.  On grey days, she is clad in silver, but when skies are blue she too adopts an azure aspect.  Throw in some clouds and she is patterned with rectangles of white.  I’m sure she would look impressive with any sort of chromed finish, but her chameleon skin gives her additional charm.

The three great windows resemble the sails of the Tall Ships that have moored along this same stretch of water that she now oversees; another nice touch but there is still more.  The multiple layers of white floors that comprise the interior may be reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim, but it doesn’t diminish their serenity.  The wood panelling within the main hall is stunning, but look above you and the spaces between resemble piano keys.  Perfect for the region’s premier concert hall.

There is something calm and welcoming about the main concourse, and I believe the quantity of light that floods the space and bounces from the white surfaces must contribute to this, but even the flooring helps.  Shiny and black, and flecked with reflective flakes and chips it too sends photons skyward once again.  Would we have complained if there were carpet beneath our feet?  Probably not, but that attention to detail just adds to the effect.

I could go on singing her praises (though I might not be invited to do so from any of her stages) but I think you should visit and discover more of her secrets.

APW_9211Even the breakfasts are worth the trip!APW_9212

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The Call of the Trail

On my recent visit to Berkshire as my colleague Kevan and I returned from sampling the wares of the local hostelry, I looked up to a remarkable display of stars, which then prompted two middle-aged men to stand in the cold, trying to locate the scant numbers of constellations that they could both identify and name.  There were never many in my repertoire, but even Cassiopeia was eluding me.

The reason we felt compelled to stop and stare was the absolute clarity of the sky above us; unusually cloud free after the weeks of heavy rain that have swept the UK, but also free from the light pollution that we’re accustomed to and that dims the heavens these days.  Given our proximity to London, this seemed all the more unusual, and even though we were staying somewhere relatively bucolic, we weren’t far from the main road linking Reading and Newbury.

Perhaps prompted by the older image that I posed recently I thought that I’d take advantage the following evening and shoot some star trails; long exposure images that take advantage of the earth’s rotation to create whorls of light from the blurring of what seems to be the stars’ movement but is in fact our own.  Most of these shots are composites of dozens of image files, layered using specialist software, though it is possible to do something similar with a single ultra long exposure, though  this needs to be shot against an otherwise black sky to prevent overexposure.

Inevitably the following evening, our last in this location, saw the return of cloud cover, but the seed was sown.  A couple of evenings later and on my way back from meeting my friend Nic and her new Mercedes I stopped off to visit and old friend and try again.

No cloud to speak of tonight, but shooting north, where the best patterns would be achieved was a non starter.  The combined luminance of Newcastle and Gateshead put paid to that idea.  There there were the two girls who turned up and walked through my shot.  Not usually a problem with a long exposure like this; they should have blurred into invisibility – if they hadn’t decided to use their iPhones as torches.  Suddenly the trails in shot became random and much brighter than planned.  Fifteen minutes of standing in the cold while that particular exposure was recording was wasted.  I shot some more, but the chill was soon getting to my fingers and I retired for the night.

Checking my results later there was nothing that came close to what I was seeking.  The shots with a dark night sky showed no real movement.

I looked again at one of the overexposed shots (again marred by torch trails).  It was out of focus too (tricky when shooting wide apertures to make the stars brighter) and yet it had an interesting feel about it.  APW_8945-2Crop it down to get rid of the torches and the glowing moon.  Maybe has some potential?

APW_8945Apply some texture layers? Hmmm.  Maybe not such a wasted trip after all.  The trails will have to wait for another day, but fingers crossed I know just where I’m going to shoot them!

Angel of the North
Angel of the North
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Beyond First Impressions

On our drive home my daughter Meg was expressing her passion for conservation, and at snow point questioned the value of space exploration when we have so much work to do to preserve our own planet. On the face of it, a reasonable question, but the issue is more complex.

For me, exploration of any sort is about pushing into new territory and learning from the experience, both from what we discover on achieving the goal, but also from the journey itself. Consequently we have so many products and technologies in our lives that would not exist without that striving to achieve the impossible or improbable. How would Meg be as aware of the extent of global deforestation without satellite monitoring and communication technologies for example?

I have a similar view about modern art. I don’t always appreciate it or understand what the artist was trying to achieve, but the reflection that it provokes is enough in itself.

Yesterday I visited the Baltic again, and viewed the work of three artists. Salla Tykkä had shot and edited a number of video works; the one I viewed being about Romanian gymnastics. I could write in detail about the architecture of the training facilities, the disproportionate investment, the rigours of the training and the messages they conveyed in a country beset with huge financial challenges so in that respect the artwork had an impact. Did the video constitute art or was it documentary? The lack of commentary perhaps rules out the latter, and my response to it suggests it achieved a goal as the former.

On another floor a large construction predominantly of glass and metal, represented a collaboration between artist, Sara Barker, and a firm of architects Ryder Architecture. It left me completely cold, and though on a greater scale, reminded me of a piece if sculpture that I produced without any thought whatsoever as a piece of homework back in my schooldays.  I smiled wryly at a book title in the gift shop later; Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That: Modern Art Explained

APW_5304-EditThe final artist, Thomas Bayrle, was for me the most interesting, not because I’d be rushing to give a home to much or indeed any of his work, but it was the work that he had put into his art that inspired me. I was fascinated by his techniques more so than his subject matter, which ran the gamut from quirky portraits to graphic sexual imagery, building both images and sculpture from small pictures and objects into larger pieces that occasionally resemble the component parts, but at other times are transformed completely. Portraits for example that are made up of distorted photographs of church interiors. Very different to my approach to portraiture as in this image of Pauline.

I was clearly inspired in someway by the experience, looking more closely at some of the mundane details around me.

Ultimately however, despite my reaction to Sara Barker’s piece, it was an architect working with glass and steel that gave me the image I was seeking.

Sage, Gateshead
Sage, Gateshead

Progress

The streets of towns across the UK are pock-marked by the decaying carcasses of what were once the heart of British social life.  Traditional pubs are dying.

Many put this down to the smoking ban that forced a large part of the clientele to huddle refugee like in doorways or in perspex structures like bus shelters for those waiting for the big C to come along and claim them.  Have we become more sober as a nation.  Not a bit of it.  There is still plenty of evidence to the contrary to be found littering the pavements of city streets on weekend nights, but the bar has replaced the pub and in a big way.  For those in the north of the country, there was always another alternative – if you were a member.  The working men’s club.  These places offered more through providing entertainment, be it a bingo night or a “turn”, and of course the added attraction of the arrival of the pies midway through the evening.  These are the places of legend in the north, and the birth place of many a comedian or singer who had to endure the baptism of fire of performing to those who were more interested in talking to one another than giving the entertainer a chance.  You became resilient and developed an attention grabbing talent, or wilted and faded away.

And then there was the other attraction of club life.  Cheap drink.  The Northern Federation of Working Men’s Clubs had their own brewery, known to all and sundry as “The Fed”.  Originally based in Newcastle it made the move to a site in Dunston when it’s further expansion was hampered by Newcastle’s historic city walls.  This of course was when the club was in its heyday.  In the last 30 years the number of clubs has more than halved and it continues to dwindle.  Consequently the Fed brewery was sold to Scottish and Newcastle Breweries a few years back, subsequently becoming owned by Heineken until production was transferred elsewhere and the brewery closed a few years back.  The only continuing presence was the Lancastrian Suite – a purpose-built centre with meeting and conference rooms for hire and a large hall with stage and balcony that became the venue for many a formal dinner until better venues like the Gateshead Hilton took away its raison d’etre too.  Dunston isn’t at the heart of the metropolis.  The brewery site has changed hands and the production area is now being demolished.  Imagine the volumes of beers and lagers that have been produced under this roof over the years.

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And who are the new owners?  None other than the Metro Centre (or rather the conglomerate owners of that shopping destination).  The Metro Centre was ground-breaking, being the first North American style shopping mall to be established in this country.  Modelled on similar venues in Canada (and virtually copying elements of Edmonton’s vast West Ed Mall) it has long since been surpassed by others who have come along since.  It is this desire for progress that has prompted the purchase of the brewery site – the Metro Centre apparently needs to offer its customers a broader experience, or words to that effect.  Many would feel it just needs to offer better access and parking without creating congestion on the A1M that passes alongside.

Looking about from the roof of one of the Metro Centre car parks at the scene below I was reminded of the soulless strip malls that pepper major routes in the States and Canada.  Whilst I won’t miss the brewery particularly, I won’t be too excited about its successor.

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Black and White Notes

APW_0169When I was younger there was a popular TV series starring James Bolam and Barbara Flynn called The Beiderbecke Affair  which dealt with a mystery relating to the theft of a collection of records by Bix Beiderbecke.  I had no idea at that time that Beiderbecke was a real and very significant jazz cornetist and composer; I just know that I enjoyed the series.  Whether this was down to the fruitiness of Barbara Flynn’s voice, which was always welcome, the jazz soundtrack (in the style of, rather than by Bix) or the quality of the writing I can’t remember.  The series, and the two that followed were written by acclaimed playwright and screenwriter, Alan Plater.

Plater, who had studied at Newcastle University co-wrote the musical Close the Coalhouse Doora political docudrama of the 1960’s based on the work of another northern writer; Sid Chaplin, born in a pit village but who went on to become an artist rather than artisan.  Chaplin may be better known for another James Bolam series; When the boat comes in.  

Another alumnus of Newcastle University was Ian Carr, who read English Literature there, becoming friends with Chaplin as he did so.  Carr completes the loop, for as well as being a noted writer about jazz (his biographies of Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett are outstanding) was a trumpet player and composer, who wrote a suite of music dedicated to Chaplin entitled Northumbrian Sketches.  I say closed the loop, but not quite.  In his role as associate professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London he worked with a young man developing as a saxophonist and composer by the name of Tim Garland.

This weekend sees the Gateshead International Jazz Festival take place, and this evening the main hall played host to a fantastic concert.  The first part featured the Northern Sinfonia, augmented by Tim Whitehead (who had played in Carr’s band Nucleus), Henry Lowther and Andy Champion in the first performance of Northumbrian Sketches to take place in the region.

After the interval this was mirrored by another suite of music for jazz musicians and strings when Tim Garland premiered his Songs to the North Sky, inspired by his love for the region which developed when he was commissioned to write for the Sinfonia some years ago.  Although a “softy southerner” he put down roots here, and his family remain here while he travels. Both sets were outstanding, but Garland’s was given another veneer of quality by the inclusion of his colleagues from the Lighthouse Trio, Gwilym Simcock and Asaf Sirkis.  For me the highlight of the evening was when these three played a 40 minute set in between the two orchestral pieces.

Simcock must be ranked amongst the top jazz pianists currently performing anywhere in the world and gives a virtuoso performance at the keys and under the lid, damping, plucking, beating and stroking the strings independently of the keyboard.  Garland is similarly proficient, but it was Sirkis who fascinated me all evening.  As a former pianist and singer, I am at a loss to explain what it is about creative drummers that fascinates me.  Bill Bruford was the first to mesmerise me, and more recently Seb Rochford has done the same, both having the ability to work independently of the rhythm they provide to develop light and shade, humour and drama within their work.  As former band mates of Bruford, it seem right that Garland and Simcock should have appointed Sirkis who also fits that mould.  Looking like the love child of David Suchet and Brian Eno, he enjoys every exquisite touch of his colleagues, but then delivers his own contributions in equal measure ranging from moments of battery to passages of erratically ticking clocks.  This included a one man tour de force centering around his virtuosity with the hang.  Superb.

Asaf Sirks Kit (Hang on floor at right)
Asaf Sirkis’ Kit (Hang on floor at right)

There were many present who were older than me.  There may have been some younger than my daughter Holly, but regardless of the age of the audience everyone lapped it  up.  How could they not.  Lighthouse left us beaming.

For the first time, some of these images were shot not by me, but by my young apprentice!

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