More than this?

All this travelling back and forth across the Pennines of late has definitely cramped my photography.  Most of the interesting vistas I have encountered have been seen from behind the wheel of my car on a motorway where stopping to grab a picture is not an option.  Widnes was my destination once again, and apologies to those who live there, but aside from the Silver Jubilee Bridge that featured in my last post I have seen precious little to inspire me.  Maybe the weather has played its part; I’m not usually deterred by cold, wet and overcast scenes, but when I’m working and  dressed in a suit, it becomes a little less practical to be crouching in puddles!_MG_7361-Edit

Consequently I expected that Widnes was going to be a washout (if you’re reading this and know of somewhere that I should have been photographing let me know – whilst I currently have no plans to return, it’s always possible!).  Just as I was approaching my hotel however something caught my eye at the side of the road,  A detached building glowing in the gloom around it, but something else grabbed my attention.  Reticular activation system kicked in it seemed.  Was it ego that alerted me to this small business?  I could understand why you might think that, but this was an echo of an earlier picture.  What a strange co-incidence that having taken a picture in a side street in Sunderland that the image would repeat itself on the other side of the country.

I parked at my hotel, grabbed camera and tripod and returned to the scene to capture the image.  Dissapointingly there were no customers.  I had in mind a long exposure that might have given them a ghostly presence in the finished image.  Instead, if you look closely enough, I got a self portrait.  Maybe it was about ego after all?

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more than this
more than this
so much more than this
there is something else there
when all that you had has all gone
and more than this
i stand
feeling so connected
and i’m all there
right next to you

Peter Gabriel – More Than This

In defence of Widnes I subsequently learned that I should at least have undertaken a pilgrimage to the railway station.  Not because it is famously photogenic, but because it is the spot where a young Paul Simon sat down and wrote Homeward Bound.  You learn something every day don’t you!

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“How Distant Your Heart”/”How Close Your Soul”*

Not really a photography entry today, just an observation on the strange world of online dating at the suggestion of a friend who has featured on this blog herself in the past.  When I dipped my toe in these waters a few weeks back I happened upon a former colleague so naturally sent her a “fancy seeing you here” message.  In her reply she told me that she’d left the site after too many experiences with “dirty old men”.  Hmmm.  “Nice to know which category I fall into now.”  I replied.  Needless to say she backpedalled, wished me luck, and said at least I wouldn’t have to worry about them.

And yet there were still strange experiences in store.  The woman in Stockholm who I originally gave what I thought was a polite brush off too (only been to Stockholm once, and no immediate plans to pass that way again soon) who challenged me about that response and has turned into a platonic pen friend.

Then the enigmatic Mrs Smith whose monosyllabic responses seemed calculated to be provocative, and she was, provoking frustration and irritation (though at least she pointed me in roughly the right direction to get some pictures).

Most people on the site I have been using post a few pictures of themselves, but many do not.  If you’ll excuse the pun I find it hard to get the whole picture without an accompanying image.  If you think yourself so unattractive that you daren’t put a picture on the site, then how are you going to get over the challenge of that first face to face meeting?   I can understand that some people don’t want to share an image for professional reasons, and I had some nice chats with someone fitting this category who on sending me her photograph clearly had nothing to hide.  There were others of whom that cannot be said!  At the other end of the scale, shortly after making contact with one woman, she sent me this image of “her younger self” completely unbidden (I added the blurring).  What message was she trying to convey?  I don’t know as I never managed to develop a conversation with her.blur

And then there was the delightful lady who sent me a couple of  abusive texts for having the temerity to decline a meeting with her, waited several hours and then sent me another.  Not bitter at all then.  I didn’t have her picture but I was reminded of her when out riding at the weekend and finally encountered the fish wife Dolly Peel._MG_7261 _MG_7260-Edit

I just can’t get away from pictures it seems.  I’ve suspended my membership of the site now, but not before encountering the subject of  a couple of shots made yellow by a the colour temperature of the light they were shot in, which was coupled with the fact that she lives some distance away and I didn’t seem to match the profile she was seeking.  It should have been a non-starter.

Still, sitting here in Widnes as I write this, there’s an interesting metaphor at hand.  There’s a structure here dating back to the late 1950’s that transformed the local economy.  The Runcorn Gap made insignificant by a 50+ year old!_MG_7333_4_5

*In 2007 Harold Budd collaborated with Robin Guthrie to simultaneously release a pair of albums that could rightly be called twins: After the Night Falls and Before the Day Breaks.  The tracks on each album are linked to the corresponding track on the other, hence the pairing of these pieces, which seemed appropriate.

How Distant Your Heart      How Close Your Soul

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?

The rough with the smooth.

I took this picture of my daughter Holly on Saturday as she was about to leave for a party. At the small size that you see it here, it looks perfectly competent, but click on it and look at the eyes on the full-sized version and you will see that it is slightly out of focus.  This is because I was shooting without flash in relatively low light so used a slow shutter speed to get the right exposure.  As I was holding the camera rather than using a tripod this time delay was enough for a slight movement of my hands or body to create that fractional blur.

Should a portrait always be sharp?  Not really, a beauty shot for example may use bokeh (the blurriness resulting from a shallow depth of field) to soften features, but even here it is conventional to keep the nearest eye in focus (the window to the soul?); it just looks right, but why is that?  Do things look right because of some intrinsic aesthetic, or have we been conditioned by subconsciously seeing images shot this way that any other way just doesn’t work for us because it breaks the norm?

Consider this image shot by William Klein, or this one by Robert Frank; in each case “the subject” is out of focus and those in the background are more sharply defined. Who are you supposed to look at?  Who is this a picture of?  In each case the shots were deliberately composed to create this degree of ambiguity, for example in the Frank image, shot of a starlet attending a film première, his picture is about the reactions of those who are spectating, reacting to some fantasy figure who is an empty vessel, a blank canvas for them to superimpose their own dreams upon.  If the eyes are the window to the soul then the shadows that fill these sockets give greater emphasis to that emptiness.

In shooting street portraits I generally collaborate with the subject to create the image, therefore I feel constrained by the need to present a finished version which whilst not always “beautiful” captures some element of personality or character, something that they would recognise as “them”.   Giving them my contact details to view the image later compels me to do so.  As I’ve shot more of these I’ve found myself tempted to crop in ever more tightly to the centre of the face finding that the space between and including the eyes and mouth tells a complete story, but for me this relies upon capturing the detail that I find there.  I’m not sure that I or my subjects would be happy with a Klein or a Frank as a result, but maybe it’s something that I should try.

Meanwhile here’s to texture and Martin.