Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

…was my favourite artistic experience of my recent trip to Rome, where a Hokusai exhibit was consigned to the basement gallery of the Ara Pacis museum.  Apologies if you’ve arrived here expecting some new insights into Japanese woodblock printing; I chose the title because I was constantly reminded of the collection as I drove around Sicily, where the white triangular cone of an active volcano dominates the landscape in a similar way.  Fuji may be about 12% taller, but both are classified as “ultras”, prominent peaks that stand alone and dominate the surrounding landscape.

This isn’t immediately apparent from the Palermo side of the island, where mountains encircle the city and the Madonie range provides a further barrier to the east, but once you venture into the interior it’s surprisingly easy to spot the cone, particularly when the winter’s snows remain on the summit.  Consequently I expected to easily exceed Hokusai in capturing different evocations.

Unsurprisingly both of the volcanoes have their places in mythology; Fuji in Shinto legends and Etna in Greek, where Hephaestus, blacksmith to the gods, had a workshop beneath the peak (despite other stories that detail how Zeus imprisoned a monster in the same location) and Polyphemus the cyclops lived on its slopes.  Perhaps less well-known is that Etna has another name (Mongibeddu in Sicilian, Mongibello in Italian) which links it to Arthurian legend (Mongibel being home to Morgan le Fay).  What was the legendary English King doing in Sicily????  They’ll be carting St George off to Genoa next!

But back to my journey.  As I travelled further east, so it became easier to spot the peak, though not so to photograph it since in the towns it would be screened by buildings and in the open spaces in between there were few places to stop along the road.
It’s an impressive sight from wherever you view it, but I think burdening you with 36 views might be a little too much…

Postscript.  Seems I’m not alone in being moved by Hokusai, so in fairness to Van Gogh…


Industrial Heartland

The stereotype applied by other North Eastern tribes to people from Teesside is that they are “smog monsters” or “smoggies”, and when you look at the forests of pipes, chimneys, and cooling towers at the refineries and chemical works that lie to the north at Billingham and the south of the river at Wilton, and then add in the outputs of the Redcar steelworks blast furnaces, it’s not so hard to see why.

It’s not surprising then that so many should flee the vapour clouds for the more bucolic pleasures of the North Yorkshire Moors National Park that lies just to the south.  Here there are over 500 square miles of heather moorland in which walkers and cyclists can happily lose themselves (The Cleveland Way, Wainwright’s Coast to Coast Walk and the Lyke Wake Walk all pass this way).  The winding and undulating roads also attract a number of motor sport enthusiasts which has led to the loss of many lives over the years on blind bends and sudden dips.

Right in the heart of the park is Rosedale, a beautiful valley that is seven miles from the nearest town where grouse and curlew provide the soundtrack and golden plover bob to seek your attention.  Beauty in its most natural form.

It’s hard to believe that this was also once a hive of industry, but there are clues to be found just beneath the surface.  The strata reveal the blackened layers which could be no more than evidence of moorland fires, but the red and orange point to something more significant.  The presence of iron.

This beautiful dale was home to ironstone workings, leading to not just to mining, but also to the construction of giant kilns which were used to roast the stone before it was transported, saving on transport cost through the removal of unproductive rock.  Built in the 19th century the works brought a sort of prosperity to the valley for over 60 years but then fell into disuse when they ceased to be economically viable.

As if this wasn’t blight enough on the landscape, a rail line was built leading directly to the workings, cutting through spurs of moorland and bridging out over gullies, its effect being to create a terrace that follows a contour of the dale.  Easy going for walkers and cyclists, though encountering a dog on two wheels did take me by surprise.

The dale will be the ultimate victor in this battle with man’s industry.  Already the masonry is crumbling, victim to the harsh weather of the moors, and trees and grass take root in the cracks thus exposed.  This might be an unforgiving landscape  but the trees, grasses and heathers have the ability to bend with it and the livestock is well insulated.

APW_8952-Edit I wonder how long before all trace has been removed?APW_8814_HDR-Edit

Putting On Extra Layers

My first encounter with a camera obscura was in 1972.

I, like many others of my age, was addicted to a children’s TV drama that ran throughout that summer called, appropriately enough, The Long Chase.  Time seems to pass more slowly in the halcyon days of youth, and so a serial comprising 13 weekly episodes was mammoth.  (Good training for the exploits of Sarah Lund 40 years later though.)  The protagonist was a young boy who stumbles onto some sort of conspiracy involving his father that leads to a VIP being assassinated during the Edinburgh festival, a crime witnessed using the nearby Camera Obscura on the Royal Mile.

I was reminded of this when watching the trailer for the documentary film Tim’s Vermeer, in which an inventor names Tim Jenison postulates that the incredible skill of Johannes Vermeer may owe something to his having used a camera obscura to obtain his indubitably lifelike results.  I haven’t seen the full film (though my appetite has been whetted) but Jenison, who is not an artist, recreates one of Vermeer’s masterpieces with great precision, which perhaps gives credence to his theory, but then, so what?  The film is directed and narrated by the illusionists Penn & Teller, artists whose work relies heavily on the use of unseen technology that enables the production of a particular vision.  The entertainment is in the amazing results, and for nerds like me, trying to guess how it was achieved.

So if Vermeer used a tool does it matter?  We may possibly consider him less of a genius, but does it make a painting like Girl with a Pearl Earring any less stunning?  The destination is more important than the journey when it comes to art it seems.

Some years after the conclusion of The Long Chase, I read an interview with another hero of mine, Brian Eno, in which he described his approach to music recording as similar to painting.  (As a visual artist as well as a musician he is entitled to do so).  Using multi-track recording (this was in the days where tape constrained you to 64 tracks or less) he applied and removed layers of sound until he achieved the result he desired.  As one with no skill with paint and brush I wondered how true this was in painting terms.

Musically I soon learned as the introduction of portable recording machines like the Portastudio opened the doors for anyone who wanted to record their own music, though the world failed to recognise the genius of my early masterpiece Culloden haha!  Nevertheless the techniques remain valid.

On the song 17 Hills, a typical Dolbian tale of tragic lovers on the run, as Thomas introduces the romantic interest by singing

Flaming hair and her name was Irene
The prettiest thief you ever seen

the lady is personified by the appearance of Mark Knopfler‘s guitar, playing some of the best breaks and licks I’ve heard him produce.  I was very pleasantly surprised having developed a strong dislike of his sound as a result of overexposure in the 1980’s.  My renewed admiration took a bit of a knock when I happened upon this video from Mr Dolby explaining how he got the best from Knopfler during the recording session – 

So has the revelation in the video made me like the song any less?  Not in the least.  Maybe some of the admiration has shifted from the guitarist to the geek, but I still love the finished article.

My point in all of this?  There are lots of photographers who are very snooty about the ability to get the shot “in camera” with little post processing required.  I don’t have that skill, but I often know what I’m trying to get from the image I’m pointing my camera at – it just takes a bit of effort building up the layers in photoshop later.

Thanks to my flaming haired friend who suggested we visit Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall today and supplied the delicious curried parsnip soup that ended the walk.  Here are some before and after comparisons of what the layers did for me, and a screen grab of my photoshop settings for the final image.


I’m no Vermeer, Eno or Dolby, but it will do for me.


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