The Ups and Downs of Creativity Pt I

Some weeks ago I wrote a series of articles on LinkedIn about the rules, or precepts, of creativity and how I have applied them both in my work as a facilitator but also in my photography.  These rules (as defined by the Open University during my MBA) don’t take equal billing, and indeed remembering all twelve of them can be an effort, but one of my favourites is this:

Connect, and be receptive.

It encourages me to be alert to the world around me; the things I see, read, hear and experience not just as passing sensations, but as opportunities to exploit.  In my training work this enables me to find activities and anecdotes that bring my content to life, however this post, and the one that follows it, are about the ways in which this might influence what I photograph and how.

Since being made redundant last year I have worked occasionally as a film and TV extra, or supporting artist as the industry jargon prefers.  Aside from the economic drivers for doing this, I’ve long been interested in these media, and it allows me to feed my inner diva while I’m not standing at the front of a training room.  More than that though it allows me to see how scenes are shot and lit, so developing my own knowledge as a photographer.

These productions are tightly controlled to prevent press leaks and so on set photography is not allowed (unless you’re a cast member continually taking selfies), and posting details of specific shoots on social media would soon see you dropped by the agencies who get you work.  Understandable, but such a pity when many productions have great costumes and make up.  All the same in the areas off set, you will see us all snapping away with our mobile phones to capture our latest looks.

Most of my work has been on location, but recently I was working on a set built in a studio and so the holding area where we waited was actually still in the studio but beyond the walls of the constructed set; a 1950’s nightclub.  Since the whole space is painted black a large fresnel light had been set up and pointed at a white backdrop to reflect light into the whole space.  Immediately I could see the potential of the way this soft directional light was falling across people’s faces, so I came equipped the following day and began asking my colleagues if I could photograph them.  Needless to say in this situation I had plenty of takers and so I shot a gallery of film noir type images to share with them, taking advantage of the light and the costumes to add to that style.  Someone even took one of me in return.

The images I produced weren’t about my skill with the camera.  They were about my ability to see the opportunity and act on it.  Connecting and being receptive.

Part II gives a less straightforward example!

Fort & Folly

Humber Estuary

Spurn Head Spit may now be significant as a natural habitat, but this sliver of shifting clay has military value too.  The Humber gives access to a number of major docks (though even in total they handle but a fraction of the traffic seen on the Thames) and so for an invading force coming by sea it provides an attractive objective for a fleet of ships, and so Spurn would make a convenient muster point for ground forces to disembark and attack Hull from both sides.

This was demonstrated in the late 14th century when Henry IV landed his forces here at the port of Ravenspurn (referred to by Shakespeare in his histories as Ravenspurgh) before going on to depose his cousin Richard II.  Seventy years later Edward IV repeated the act when he sought (and achieved) restoration to the throne which was then held by Henry VI.  There is no longer any trace of Ravenspurn.  It is one of 30 settlements along the East Yorkshire coastline that have been consumed by the North Sea in the centuries that have followed.

Jump forwards to the First World War and the estuary’s strategic importance resulted in new plans for its defence.  Construction work began in 1915 of two forts in the mouth of the river.  Each would be garrisoned by 200 troops and provide artillery fire to deter any waterborne forces.  Due to the challenges of their construction on sandbanks (one of which was a few meters underwater) they were not completed until the war was already over.

World War II saw the forts reinstated and this time face enemy fire, though a very different enemy to that envisaged when they were built.  They were regularly targeted by German aircraft who were perhaps seeking to destroy the new defence that they provided; a boom stretched between the forts and on to Spurn Head with a net to prevent attacks from the Nazi U-boat fleet.  

Spurn Head had two further forts, also constructed in the First World War, and placed at either end of the “head”.  These coastal artillery batteries were augmented by smaller gun emplacements in between.  At the southern end the fort is well preserved but a different tale is evident at the northern fort which has been completely devastated.  Foundations have been overturned, revealing the imprint of sandbags long since turned to solid concrete.  Bricks are scattered liberally and reveal the “LBC” makers mark (London Brick Company) that was evidence of the capital’s dominance.  Huge slabs of concrete stand at a variety of different angles and crumble around the edges in surrender.

No navy wrought this destruction with large calibre shells.  No land forces planted charges to undermine the defence.  This is the work of a greater power; the sea.  For centuries man has sought to battle this invader too and stabilise the shoreline, but in recent years the decision has been taken to let nature take her course; the spit will move, break and reform from time to time as a result, but to try to prevent it would always be a losing battle.

Victim of Prejudice

The town of Blyth has a long history, going back at least as far as the 12th century. Finds from the Neolithic era have been found nearby, though that in itself is no evidence of a settlement.  All the same it should be exactly the sort of place that appeals to me, especially when you add in the fact that it’s located on the beautiful Northumbrian coast.  Yet whenever I’ve been on that coast I’ve always felt it best to keep heading north away from Blyth.

The town was quite prosperous from the 18th century onwards with a range of trade and industry that included shipbuilding, coal mining, fishing, salt and railways.  And there you see the first hint of a problem.  Though these have all been vital contributors to the economy in their time, that time is firmly in the past, at least as far as the UK is concerned.  Shipbuilding and coal were both casualties of the Thatcher years, fishing has been hit by dwindling stocks resulting in EU quotas (watch this space one Brexit kicks in), we’re all trying to cut back on our salt intake, and if there were ever two words guaranteed to lead to a joke in the 70’s and 80’s it was British Rail.  In short, Blyth has long seen economic decline, and for many years was known for having one of the worst drug problems in the UK.

The town’s tourist website has little more to offer than the facts in the previous couple of paragraphs, so when I had to visit to collect an eBay purchase I had no real subject in mind.  That meant I had to play safe and head for the coast where some long exposure photography was bound to bring results.

The multiple groynes that prevent the erosion of the beautiful sandy beach were one option, the long shot down towards St Mary’s to the south gave another, but that’s a lighthouse that we’ve already covered here so best look north where there’s a new lighthouse to add to the collection at the end of a pretty intriguing pier whose latticework topping gives it a unique aspect.  This is the East Pier, a continuation of a spit of land that runs from north of the River Blyth’s mouth and provides the protection that made this such a busy port.

There’s another lighthouse in town, one of a pair of “high/low lights” similar to those at North Shields, though there’s no light left, just the tower.

Which makes it very frustrating that any references I can find to Blyth lighthouse always take me to that structure rather than the one in these pictures which was built in 1907.

Looks like I’ll have to overcome my prejudice and come back to find out more for myself!

Back. To Bologna.

So in what appears to be an annual event, I distract myself from the bitterness of another festive season on my own by opting for a few days in Italy. Not Venice this time, nor any of the other Italian favourites I’ve visited over the years, but to the city of Bologna about which I knew very little before visiting.

What I did know was the history of terrorist terrorist atrocities carried out by mysterious networks during the “lead years” when fascists and communists fought each other’s ideologies, and also that it’s famous for its food culture and the world’s first university. These latter facts form the central elements to the Michael Dibdin novel set in the city from which I’ve bastardised my title in which Aurelio Zen is almost an incidental figure to the tussle between an academic who is thinly veiled reference to Umberto Eco, and a TV chef whose PR machine is much greater than his actual talent. You can take your pick for the inspiration there.

Dibdin clearly didn’t take this novel to seriously (even sending up his own leading character when the academic discusses writing a novel featuring a nosy French detective called Nez) and the city is not painted in the same detail as Venice in Dead Lagoon, so I arrived relatively ignorant, spending three days walking around mostly within the bounds of the original medieval walls.

What I found was the radical politics expected of a student city, a few very exclusive shopping streets, plenty of food and drink, history, science, art, jazz… and canals! This is no Venezia, but hidden below the streets is a network of rivers and canals that have been mostly build over. My own hotel took its name from this fact and made me welcome by providing a picture of Rialto in my room.

So join me in exploring Bologna in a few more Italian posts.


Connect and Be Receptive…

…is one of the precepts of creativity according to the studies that were part of my MBA.  That, and Live with Looseness I seem to recall (perhaps inaccurately).

The trouble is there were, according to the Open University, about a dozen of these and I can only remember two!  Not to worry though, I employ the latter in my day job as a trainer and facilitator, leaving me plenty of time to use the connection precept elsewhere.  It’s at the heart of my approach to photography really – see what a situation has to offer, accept the possibilities and then try to find an image or two from the process.  (Perhaps that’s another reason for the reactive nature of my work!)

It does pay dividends though to be open-minded.

In Yarm this weekend to kill some time while J’s daughter was taking a class, we might have sat in one of the many coffee shops that overlook the Georgian High Street.  Perhaps, as the weather was unusually warm we might have found a table on the pavement, at which point I would doubtless have been tempted to photograph the architecture of the buildings opposite, or perhaps the passers-by.  Such is the pull of Yarm’s main thoroughfare, that it does tend to distract you from other features nearby.  Just last week I had a conversation with a colleague about the fact that for most of my life I hadn’t really noticed the huge railway viaduct that bestrides the housing just west of the High Street.

So to shake myself out of this complacency I suggested we take our coffees for a walk down to the riverside, another part of the town that I’d previously neglected.  It was beautiful by the water, which flowed sluggishly by, rippled only by the slightest breeze and the occasional waterfowl.

Needless to say I captured some typical watery imagery.  All very picture postcard but nothing to write home about!

Looking for somewhere to bask in the sun we spotted a bench slightly removed from the river’s breeze, but next to a dishevelled individual hunched over a crossword puzzle book and alternating between cigarettes and swigs of Stella Artois from a supply of cans stashed beneath him.  That might have been off-putting for some but we sat down and were deep in conversation when he spoke up to enquire whether he might ask us a question.

And so began a fascinating conversation in which he;

  • declared that I have “banker’s hands”,
  • advised us of places to visit on our forthcoming trip to Barcelona,
  • told a number of weak jokes,
  • flirted with Janey,

and challenged us to provide a definition of love!

Not what we were expecting from our Sunday morning coffee break, but it did provide me with an opportunity to challenge him in return before booking a taxi to get him safely home.

Some would have shunned him or avoided the seat in the first place, but we choose to receive his wisdom, and of course a photograph…



Life’s Simple Pleasures

With summer drawing to a close, at least as marked by the long school holiday, the seaside draws many to enjoy the last few days of sun and sand.  I’m also part of this throng, though the evidence elsewhere on this blog proves that I’m not simply a fair weather visitor.

Bouncing from coast to coast as my work takes me west and my home returns me to the east, I’ve left the Irish Sea behind for today’s post and returned to the North Sea, this time on the North Yorkshire coast.

Just a short distance short of Whitby, the town made famous by Bram Stoker and now home to Goth festivals, fish and chips galore, and a smattering of jewellers specialising in the jet which is washed up on these shores, is a small village called Sandsend.  Village is perhaps a misnomer, for this was originally nothing more than two rows of dwellings overlooking the shore, separated by a small beck flowing into the sea.APW_5987-Pano-Edit

The local alum works led to its growth, and though that no longer provides the demand, Sandsend’s setting makes it one of the most expensive places to buy property in the county, but no matter how costly the cottages and houses, enjoying the beach requires little sophistication.

Ingenuity was on display however.  Digging and damming water channels to irrigate sand castle moats is commonplace, but here people were working on a larger scale.  By slowing the flow of East Row Beck a small reservoir was created, and so Sandsend had both paddling pool and boating lake to add to its attractions.APW_6011

Not my usual coastal subject matter, but a short walk to the north (where the sand does indeed end) provided both interesting geology as well as more colourful possibilities, and by virtue of having J with me, one of my rare appearances from behind the lens.  Well we can all enjoy the sun and sand can’t we?


Fine dell’Avventura (Venezia 365)

Well this is it, my final image from my project to reveal a different aspect of Venice for each day of the last year.  I didn’t save the best ’til last, but I did save one that is unmistakably Venetian.  I’ve enjoyed the journey as I’ve learnt so much more about the city from my attempts to identify the subject matter of an exposure that had visual appeal at the time, but about which I knew nothing more.

Thank you to those who have followed my journey, my sharing of trivia, stories and personal reflections.

When I studied creativity I learned about the use of random inputs; a technique developed by Edward de Bono and this project has seen a lot of that.  Given a random image what could you find to write about?  Where will your imagination take you?

In my case it has taken me to new levels of understanding of this amazing city, I hope it has you too.

So I bid adieu to La Serenissima.  Or arrivederci may be more appropriate.