On The Streets With No Names*

Inspiration comes from many sources; the sculpture in my last post has been nagging at me to photograph it for months, and I’d thought that was it for this blog entries this week.  Then, when I was waiting at the hairdressers this morning, a surprise came my way.  I’d replied to a couple of txt messages, checked my emails, and read the BBC news website.  Still waiting.  Any messages on the dating website?  No, and so I turned to my blogging app to see what was published under the “freshly pressed” category.

I scrolled down until I came to a photographer’s post.  I’ve never read Jasonikon’s blog before, but here was his account of doing some street photography on Putney High Street.  What’s more, he very helpfully detailed the technique that he used as well as the settings for his camera.  Well if that wasn’t a gauntlet thrown down, I don’t know what was.  I was due to have lunch with my beautiful daughters in Newcastle today, so I knew I’d have an opportunity to give it a go, or rather give my version a go.

Jason details how he shoots with his Nikon hanging at waist level to make it less obtrusive and therefore remain largely unnoticed by his subjects.  I don’t know what model he is using, but my Canon 5d Mk III doesn’t do unobtrusive, no matter what I hang it from!  When I’ve shot candids in town previously, I’ve tended to work from a distance with a long lens so that I’m able to raise the camera to my eye without being so close to my subject that they will notice and react.  Jason works much closer and with a wider angle lens.  I don’t have a 35mm prime but used my 24-70 and mimicked his settings as best as I could.  My addition was that I held the camera in my left hand, with no fingers anywhere near the  shutter button.  To the casual observer I was no threat!

In my jacket pocket, enclosed in my right hand, was my secret weapon.  I sometimes use pocket wizards to trigger speedlite flash units remotely with radio signals, but today I wired one up to the camera and I was set to go.  What’s more the Mk III’s ability to shoot almost silently was a great help here.  A couple of test shots and then off I went.

As Jason states in his article, street photography comes into its own when viewed through the lens of history, we take note of changes to cityscapes, hairstyles and fashions.  The reportage shots of yesterday fascinate us, but of course they all begin as candid street photography.

Shooting today, most of my images fell into two categories, those showing the incredible honesty of expression that you get from shooting people unawares, expressions that you would never get if someone sees your lens moving in their direction.  Today there is a subset in there; the various attitudes of men being taken shopping by their respective partners!

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The second category is those that are less expressive, but nonetheless capture the spirit of the time through the fashions and attitudes of those pictured.  (See if you can spot Tyger Drew-Honey from Outnumbered amongst these)

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Of course for me there was a third category today; shot on the street, but with two very conscious subjects.  You didn’t expect that I’d ignore my girls did you?


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You Only Bake Twice

Britain has taken baking to its heart again, a fact due in no small part to the phenomenal success of The Great British Bake Off presented by Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood.  Mary Berry has been synonymous  with baking for decades but Hollywood has come from seemingly from nowhere to become a TV “personality”; granted his own series on bread making here, and fronting the US version of Bake Off in the states.  Dubbed the George Clooney of TV chefs he and Mary have inspired many to reach for the flour again.  Including me.

I’m not a bad cook.  At times I can be very good, but bread in particular has always been my Achilles heel.  The few loaves I have produced over the years (including one baked in a plant pot!) have been heavy, stodgy, and completed unrelated to bread as we know it.  With time and space at my disposal now it was inevitable that I should give it another go to see if Mr Hollywood knew what he was talking about.  (As former Head Baker at Cliveden and The Dorchester, he should)

My first attempt was pretty decent.  The trouble was I started it one evening, and so didn’t have enough time for the proving and rushed it a little.  Colour and taste were good, excellent crust, but the crumb was just a little reminiscent of cake.  No matter, I enjoyed every slice.

With my second attempt, I went out during the second proving, and mistakenly had slashed the loaf too soon.  I returned to find a much larger loaf, though one that had grown laterally rather than vertically.  It just about stayed on the baking tray so I slipped it into the oven before it made its escape.  Half an hour later and we have a first; a crusty Stottie!  Still delicious though.

Think it’s going to be third time lucky?

Food photography is a very specialised art and one in some demand.  Books, magazines and websites call out for food that makes us salivate the moment our eyes fall upon it.  The trouble is that the food in those pictures is likely to be completely inedible.  Read any book on the techniques used and you will learn that the food is often skewered together to aid composition and garnished with oils, paints and detergents to give it shine and colour.  It’s not just inedible, it may even be toxic!

For any visitors I may want to impress this week, I baked something safer yesterday; chocolate and almond biscotti.  Biscotti is the source of our word biscuit, and means twice (bis) cooked (cotti).  Twice as many opportunities for error?  Not a chance and no additives for the photographs?  My younger daughter Holly is coming to stay this week which is why I made a chocolate version.  Eat anything with a chocolate flavour?  Holly would.  (See what I did there 😉 )


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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Back in the jug agane*


When I finished my stint as a part-time tutor in July, it was in the expectation that I would be returning to the college this month in a full-time role and beginning formal teacher training.  Well as it turns out that will be one road not travelled – the full-time role evaporated in budget review and I’m now working for a consultancy who are proving lots of work and much closer at hand.

Consequently I’m the only member of the household not bound up the education calendar.  Megan of course has been back at Uni for a couple of weeks; not because her studies are underway, there’s still a couple of weeks before such matters need concern her, but because she has the dual enticements of a house shared with friends and a boyfriend a couple of streets away.

In Gill’s role as a school administrator she has been over the school threshold occasionally during the holidays, but the mêlée didn’t begin in earnest until today when the school office becomes a mass of queries about dinner money and uniforms.

For children of course this is the one day of the year when they are likely to be in a pristine uniform, with a new pencil-case, virgin notebooks and shiny shoes, particularly if they are changing school and aren’t yet up to speed with the limits of acceptable uniform transgressions.

Whilst Holly as a sixth former is way too cool to be seen to give this too much attention there was an air of excitement today as she when off to meet new teachers, new class mates and to navigate a new environment.  Uniform doesn’t really describe the dress code that she must adhere to now, most of the rebellions will be about make-up and skirt length no doubt, nevertheless she looked pretty good when she left today.

I’m only glad she hasn’t begun her Physics studies by reading How to be Topp: A Guide to Sukcess for Tiny Pupils, Including All There is to Kno about Space*

*Molesworth books by Geoffrey Whilans and Ronald Searle – written when I was a boy!


Grin twins

It’s about 16 years since my youngest daughter Holly was baptised, and for the most part all went well; parents and god parents said their piece, the baptismal waters weren’t to cold for Holly’s liking, and the priestly double act of Ken and Jen created a memorable service (unless you’re Holly!).

There was one slight problem however.  Partway through the service the liturgy was punctuated by a sharp thud, followed by a slight hubbub and shuffling.  Young Liam, who was only two or three at the time, had slipped of the kneeler and tipped face first into the pew in front, cleanly removing one of his front teeth.  Ouch.

Fast forward to this evening and I was photographing Liam, his sisters and his cousin.

His baby teeth are all long gone, but he still has a gap in his smile (which he’s hiding here).  Thankfully he’s still a good-looking lad (confirmed by Holly) and his twin sister Hannah can more than make up for the smiling…she’s a dental nurse!

It’s a family affair…

Holly and I met an interesting man in the supermarket this morning.  Unusually we were the one’s on the receiving end of a conversation about photography.

The man who began it had spotted the Canon slung over my shoulder and began by asking about the model, telling me that his wife (who had wandered on, focused on some serious shopping) also used a Canon.  He went on to tell us that he’d been an amateur photographer all of his life, loved his Leica, and warned of the perils of copyright infringement when you upload your pictures to the web.

I was sure he’d be my subject today, once I told him about my project, but I was to be disappointed.  His reason for refusing?  He didn’t have his false teeth in!!!  (That’s a first.)

Still, it wasn’t too much of a problem, because I already had some images to share.  My Canadian in-laws have been in the UK for the wedding mentioned yesterday, and as my niece Abby is of a similar age to my daughters, I’ve long been planning to get all three of them into a studio to photograph them together, and last week it all came together.  I didn’t get the chance to post on the day as we were preparing for the trip to Surrey that followed, but better late and all that.

I hired the excellent (and world famous) Bananastudios in Newcastle, knowing that Eric would be on hand for any help I needed, and also booked the fantastic make up artist Alex Pretswell, so it was a real treat for the girls.  As my sister-in-law Dawn, and mother-in-law Thelma dropped in to watch I even had the chance of a larger family group.

Whenever I’ve shot in the studio before, it has always been part of a workshop with other photographers, and so there is a fair amount of downtime between shots to relax and have a drink or a nibble.  Very different when you have three girls in rotation between outfits and make up and different sets to shoot too.  I was surprised to find myself working up a sweat as the afternoon progressed.  Who’d have thought that you could get a workout from a shutter release!

Here are just a few from the day including Dawn, who was adamant that she wouldn’t be photographed.  Glad a little misdirection prevailed!

Thanks are also due to Sly & The Family Stone who saved me from having to entitle this “Three Girls and a Banana!”

Sly & The Family Stone – Family Affair

A Fistful of Shrapnel

As you can imagine I get some varied responses when I ask people for a picture, but at the weekend I had a first.  A tanned man with a well lined face glowering under a beany initially refused point-blank with a “Picture of me?  What would I want to let you do that for?”, but as I walked on he turned and called me back.

“Tell you what…” he said, “I’ll let you take a picture of me if you’ll pay me one pound forty!”  As I caught the alcohol on his breath (it was 10.30 am) I guessed at what he wanted the cash for, though had no idea what he would get for such a small sum.  Nevertheless I declined his offer.

The value of a photograph is a thorny question.  There are thousands of words written on blogs and forums by pro photographers decrying the way in which a combination of amateurs with digital cameras, and full-time photographers trying to undercut the competition, are devaluing the work that they offer.  Why would someone pay hundreds/thousands of pounds to have their wedding photographed when Uncle Bob will do it for next to nothing?

Of course with a quality photographer you are paying for them not just to “be there for a few hours” but for their ability to capture great images in virtually any conditions (and without upsetting the priest with constant flash), the time they spend editing and processing afterwards, and the fact that they carry insurance, multiple cameras and multiple memory cards to make sure that they are ready for anything.  The alternative can be devastating.

Still there are plenty who will go for the cheapest option available, and realistically this tells me how important the wedding images are or are not to the couple concerned.  If you really want to be sure of some special memories then why take the chance?

There are similar hurdles to be overcome when photographers work with models.  An aspiring model might expect to pay a photographer to produce some images for her portfolio, but the situation is reversed if the model has a good reputation and a photographer wished to improve his or her portfolio.  In the attempt to reach a fair settlement the offer of time for images is often a negotiated compromise.

I mention all of this because there was a cost to today’s image.  I’ve written before about the great work for the RNLI and how they rely on donations to continue that work.  They were collecting at Seaburn today, and probably when they planned it they expected a warm summer’s day with plenty of passing traffic.  Instead it was cold and grey with regular outbreaks of rain.  There appeared to be plenty of promotional items left unsold.

Despite this, Holly, who was collecting, continued to great everyone with a smile and a polite offer to explain more about the work of the charity, and how I could join for the cost of a pint of beer each month.   I happily made a donation in return for a photograph, but when it came to processing I decided she deserved a more colourful background than she had had to put up with all day.  Blue skies to match her blue eyes and give it a promo poster feel.

Wonder if the mysterious beach totem builder made a donation?