What did the Romans…. (SOS)

… ever do for Catalonia?

Earlier in my posts about Barcelona I mentioned that the development of the city really began with the arrival of the Romans who developed a great port here and laid the foundations for the prosperous metropolis that was to spread inland.  So is this a city with Roman sites to rival those of Italy?  Well no.  It doesn’t come close as far as I could see on my visit.

In most conurbations the medieval city might be a good place to find evidence of Roman structures that had been developed and built upon, or perhaps incorporated into the city walls, yet in Barcelona this didn’t seem to be the case.  Now I’m no Mary Beard, so might well have overlooked some vital evidence, but in the Gothic Quarter there is medieval design aplenty but very little that pre-dates this.  I suspect Medieval Catalonians may well have been recycling enthusiasts.

In Plaça Nova, not far from the Cathedral lay a stretch of Roman masonry which was my first discovery.  Perhaps “stretch” is stretching a point.  There’s a single arch, though view it from the other side and you can see two.  Any Monty Python aficionado should recognise its purpose; the famous exchange from Life of Brian that answers the question “What have Romans given us?” results in a long list of achievements.  A list that begins with “an aqueduct”.  For those of us who take clean drinking water and sanitation for granted this might not seem much, but it’s transformative power made being part of the empire a more attractive option than simple subjugation._PW_1390

Behind the cathedral I found my second structure.  Along the narrow alleyway of Calle Paradis and down a few well-worn steps I found the Temple of Augustus; the very heart of the Roman City.  This structure wasn’t only dedicated to Rome’s first true emperor who had been elevated to the status of god, it was also the site of the Forum in the city so would have been impressive and imposing, and in a limited sort of way it still is.  Only a podium and four tall columns in the Corinthian style remain, but finding them “indoors” was quite a surprise.  The rest of the temple has gone and its surrounding gardens incorporated into the cathedral complex.

Reg:          All right… all right… but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us?

Xerxes:     Brought peace!

The Romans may have done a lot, but over the centuries it seems that their beneficiaries were less than grateful._PW_1405

Oh, this is futile*

*Monty PythonThe Argument Sketch.

A good proportion of the UK is under water at present as successive weather fronts deposit rain and snow at an alarming rate on towns and villages already sodden from weeks of wet weather.

Those in the west have had the additional tribulation of hurricane force winds driving high tides onto battered shorelines.  Dramatic images for those who like me love the photographic opportunities that our coastlines supply though in many locations people have been warned to stay away.  One unfortunate young photographer has been swept to his death in recent weeks.

These freakish conditions inevitably give rise to speculation as to whether man-made climate change is to blame and this morning, stuck in a 30 minute tailback of exhaust fumes and with the forest of industrial chimneys that is Teesside to my left, I heard on Radio 4’s Today programme a discussion of this very question.  Sir Brian Hoskins, one of the world’s greatest authorities on climate was faced with the extreme scepticism of former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Lord Lawson.tees sunrise worked

The exchange, which I found quite exasperating reminding me of the Python sketch referred to above, in which Michael Palin pays to have an argument; “a connected series of statements intended to establish a proposition” and is met with a wall of nothing more than contradiction “No it isn’t!”  Lord Lawson’s response to any evidence  proposed by Hoskins was one of pure denial, and culminated in this patronising statement:

I don’t blame the climate scientists for not knowing. Climate and weather is quite extraordinarily complex and this is a new form of science. All I blame them for is pretending they know when they don’t.

No wonder politicians in this country see their credibility at an all time low in the eyes of the voting population.

Anyway, the argument proved serendipitous for it gives me an opportunity to post these sublime images which I captured earlier in the week.  Draw your own conclusions.



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In the Monty Python sketch The Penultimate Supper, the Pope takes Michelangelo to task for painting a fresco of the last supper, which includes a kangaroo, jellies, 28 disciples and…

3 Christs!  (No wonder Leonardo got the gig!)

You’ll have to find the sketch to understand the relevance of all of this, but in the general argument about artistic merit, Michelangelo makes the point that having three saviours works because “the fat one balances the two skinny ones”.

Balance is the topic that I’m supposed to be looking at while I work through the photography exercises in the book I’m reading at the moment.  I say supposed to be because I’m not entirely convinced by the argument that says pictures should have equal “weight” distributed around the image.  Anyway, the assignment I was looking for was to find pairs of subjects and compose images to give them “balance” in the finished shot.  Now this can be very straightforward (if uninspiring) with shots like this:

However it doesn’t take me long to start pushing at the boundaries.  At first I shot this, which actually still qualifies as balanced, for the larger masonic building is unable to dominate the smaller pub next door because the brightness of the white walls compensate.APW_2317  Well that was the theory anyway!

I then went totally off piste and shot a pair of images that reflect the yin and yang of this part of Durham.  On the one hand the leafy tranquility of Old Elvet, and on the other the prison which sits along side.  Two images which as a pair give balance.  Maybe.

I also shot the Courts, which has obvious balance through its symmetry, and which for me sums up the problem.  I find such shoots boring.APW_2321

APW_2338I head for the Palace Green resolving to take this more seriously, and as I cross Kingsgate bridge I shoot this in which tree and cathedral become the two halves of the equation; one large but airy, the other small and dense.  I also shot this sculpture of the architect APW_2464-Editresponsible for the Kingsgate development, Ove Arup.  No attempt at balance whatsoever! And then I just relaxed into finding my own versions of balance, either through symmetry or asymmetry, they all worked for me.

My heart still wasn’t in it really.  Maybe Durham was to blame.  There are too many idiosynchracies in this city; random alleyways, conflicting rooflines, contrasting building materials and so on.  Much like myself.  I don’t necessarily fit with conventional views of how I should act and struggle to conform with the expectations of others, and while I do my creativity suffers.  Free to be myself and it blossoms.   I like Durham for it’s strangeness, so will extend the metaphor to me too.  How can I achieve balance when I get more out being unbalanced.  How can you shoot balanced pictures in a city with buildings like this?APW_2427_8_9The strange thing is that having decided to forget about balance I was then unable to escape it.  A shot like this could be seen as the two younger people balancing out the older one (though there is obvious symmetry too),APW_2415but what about this shot?  On it’s own it may seem free of balance, but of course I know that the man carrying this shopping had a similar load in his left hand.APW_2468

I wanted to finish with a portrait to completely subvert the balance and had seen a place where the light flooding from a side street gave fantastic opportunities for broad or narrow lighting, either of which would do the job.  I found my spot and waited for a suitable subject.  Many unremarkable faces passed by until I knew I had found her.APW_2451  Of course no sooner had I begun talking to her and her boyfriend that the shaft of light that inspired the shot disappeared behind a cloud.  Great.

Having started the conversation anyway, it would have been rude to do nothing so I shot them as a couple.  Arggghhhhh. Balance!!!


Michaelangelo: I’ll tell you what you want, mate. You want a bloody photographer! Not a creative artist with some imagination!  


After the highs of the three athletics golds in the Olympic stadium last night, it was a much calmer world this morning.  Parking on the cliff tops I could see that the water was even calmer and hazier than it had been yesterday, but there was no blue in the sky to brighten it.

There was also a man throwing stones into the sea for his dog to chase, so I felt it likely that there was someone to photograph.

I began at the water’s edge continuing my obsession with the small rowing boats moored within the lagoon.   I shot dozens of images, changing the exposure to give the opportunity to process some as HDR  pictures, and taking advantage of passing birds that might have given the image more interest.  The water is calm enough for good reflections, but with enough movement to scatter that reflection into a longer pattern like a shadow at sunrise.

Eventually I turned my attention to the man and his dog, and was surprised to find that he was a former colleague with whom I worked over twenty years ago.  We were part of a group who took the mickey out of each other through insults, practical jokes, and ridicule.  I remember adopting an exaggerated voice, not unlike Monty Python’s TF Gumby when trying to impersonate him and quoting his reaction to any food that was remotely exotic.  “I’m not eating that, it’s slop!”  It was probably nothing like him.

Declining my request for a photograph on the grounds that he was old, decrepit and lived in, he offered his dog as a substitute, but wet labradoodles aren’t my stock in trade, so we continued talking.  His Spanish holiday was too hot for his pale skinned family.  A woman had warned him to keep his dog out of the water because of sharks (a seven-foot porbeagle was landed up the coast and sold out in hours at Latimer’s Fish Deli behind us).  His 11-year-old daughter had attitude.

As I bade him farewell he spotted a blonde woman heading onto the beach.  “I’d much rather photograph her than someone like me” he said.  And so I did.

This is Beverley, (a name that also resonates with that same group of co-workers), out walking her dogs.  She was far more co-operative, so I photographed her dog too.

Think I got the definitive boat shot; this one’s going to canvas.



die Schönheit von Eva

The 18th Century German philosopher Immanuel Kant states that beauty should have four qualities;

  1. Disinterest – we find the subject pleasurable because it is beautiful rather than the other way around.  If we described a meal as beautiful, it would probably be influenced by the taste and aroma, rather than purely down to its aesthetics
  2. Universal – all can agree that it is beautiful (though this goes against the notion of the “eye of the beholder”
  3. Necessary – the human mind must pass judgement on this quality of an object
  4. Purposive – there should be no purpose to the beauty.  It is beautiful for its own sake.

At this point philosophy academics are throwing their hands up in horror at my feeble attempt to explain Kant, and to be honest I’m more familiar with his drinking ability as described in Monty Python‘s Philosopher’s Song!

Also in Germany the Universities of Rostock and Regensburg undertook research using computer generated facial composites, and concluded in their work Beauty Check that facial beauty should include amongst other factors;

  • smooth skin without blemish or wrinkle
  • a tendency towards the average
  • high cheekbones
  • symmetry
  • “baby features” in women (small nose and chin, large eyes)
  • prominent jawline in men.

The great fashion photographer Erwin Blumenfeld was American, but of German origin, and photographed more Vogue covers and any other before or since.  One of these was chosen by Rankin for his “Seven Photographs That Changed Fashion” project and it shows that Blumenfeld can distil beauty down to even more basic components.  His 1950 Vogue cover certainly has unblemished skin, but symmetry and cheekbones?

Extreme Beauty In Vogue
Extreme Beauty In Vogue (Photo credit: Human Flash Dancer)

For all this German focus on beauty, I found many more examples in the teams of nations other than the Fatherland when watching the Olympic opening ceremony yesterday. (Entschuldigung!)  Nevertheless it was Blumenfeld’s influence that prompted me to photograph Eve when I saw her in Newcastle.

Her silver locks and pale skin don’t quite match the blown out whiteness of the Vogue cover, but the red lips and eyebrows were the most striking features visible beyond her Ray-Bans.  Not much to go on, but it was enough to convince me that she was photogenic.  The quirky smile is all the better for not being symmetrical in my view, but what about the shades?  Are they the “large eyes” required by  Beauty Check?  I think they probably are so cheated and gave them a blue tint!

Oh and in case you can’t see what I’m talking about, here’s my take on the Blumenfeld:

Northern Man

If you google “Northern Man” you will find amongst the suggested images a fair selection of that favourite stereotype “Man in Flat Cap”.  Though it has provided a seam of comic gold for many; Andy Capp, Python’s Four Yorkshiremen, The Goodies’ Ecky Thump and Bill Tidy‘s Fosdyke Saga for example, it’s an image as irrelevant today as the Londoner with rolled umbrella and bowler had striding across Westminster Bridge.

As I was in Newcastle today for an abortive attempt to have my camera sensor cleaned, I spent 15 minutes at the foot of Grey’s Monument capturing some candids of passers-by and by and large they put the stereotype to bed.

There were plenty who wore nothing on their heads;

but those who did adopt headgear eschewed the flat cap, unless you count the hat worn by the other photographer present…

The one guy with a flat cap probably wasn’t typical L S Lowry material!

Of course for a portrait I wanted someone who was deliberately interacting with the camera.  David was wearing a Nike baseball cap, but underneath it I could see some great eyes despite his otherwise dishevelled appearance.  When I asked for his picture he said nothing, but simply opened his mouth to add his unique dental arrangement into the mix.  Thanks David, I love this picture.  I just hope it isn’t stereotypical!

“a little fermented curd will do the trick”*

As I approach the half way point of my year long quest to capture a portrait per day I’ve noticed that men and women approach the process differently.

Most men have agreed to have their picture taken without question – I almost have to force the information upon them about my blog and the project.  I was going to say that I could only think of two who had refused, but as I typed their stories a third sprang to mind, and then a fourth.  Rather than turn this into something akin to Monty Python’s Spanish

Nobody Expects The Spanish Inquisition
Nobody Expects The Spanish Inquisition

Inquisition sketch, lets just accept that they have been less frequent than women.  Not very scientific, but that’s the impression that I have.

Women are more likely to respond with the “hate having my picture taken” riposte, or occasionally the “not without my make-up on” defence.

A lot of the guys just stare straight down the lens almost as if refusing to contribute to the process.  Ironically I tend to get more out of these pictures as without a cheesy grin I’m left with a face that betrays more about their normal demeanour.

Women almost inevitably smile.  Would they do the same if I was a female photographer?  I don’t know.  Is there a woman out there doing the same thing who could share their experience?  I’d be interested to know.

Anyway the point of all this is that today I was surprised when the young Nigerian girl I had found for today’s picture asked me whether she should smile or not.  I told her I didn’t mind and that she should just give me whatever look she felt comfortable with.  When she hesitated I suggested she smile, shot a few frames and then asked her for a more serious look.  This can sometimes have the reverse effect of producing uncontrollable laughter, but in Ola’s case she had a moment of inspiration, turning her head to one side and hitting me with magnetic eyes that were a little reminiscent of Sophie Okonedo. 

Makes you wonder why photographers have historically gone to such lengths to get people to say cheese.

*from Monty Python Cheese Shop