Meeting my youngest daughter at an uncharacteristically early hour in Newcastle this weekend allowed me a little time to stroll amongst the stalls of the Monument food market.
Had we not already planned to have brunch after our shopping I might have been tempted to indulge in the variety of international dishes on offer, particularly from the Moroccan stall whose wares were particularly fragrant.
As we strolled Holly and I discussed how much she loves living in that city and how much it has to offer. We talked food and drink, architecture, music and history as we made our way down the beautiful sweeping curves of Grey Street, and I felt a sense of pride at having offspring who appreciate the artistry of others.
With a few minutes to spare I immersed myself in those arts once more and found time to be a little creative myself.
All the swapping of lenses that I undertook in Havana wasn’t really recommended for the health of my camera sensor, especially on the dry days when there was so much dust around that even the swiftest of changeovers was bound to let some of the stuff into the body of my Canon.
Most of it could be removed with the camera’s own sensor cleaning tool (which seems to be something akin to giving it a good shake at high-speed) but some particles remained. I spent quite a bit of time retouching skies in my pictures where a close look originally revealed the tell-tale blobs of dust on a sensor.
As I’m shooting for a client next weekend I dashed into Newcastle this morning to remedy the problem with the help of a specialist, and half an hour later we were as good as new. So what should I point my lens at while I was there?
For a little while I toyed with the potential that these round seating areas provided, but the I couldn’t align the overhead shot quite as I wanted without risking camera or photographer disappearing over a parapet. No, something else was needed.
Now Newcastle is used to people behaving strangely at all times of the day and night (it used to be the party city of choice for students, stags and hens) so the behaviour of these young ladies didn’t raise too much of an eyebrow, especially as the cause of their gyrations was just beside me.
A great little band comprising of drums, trumpet and most importantly baritone sax were ripping out some great rasping rhythms. Not quite the Havana experience and a lot less gentrified. I didn’t hear them play Guantanamera once!
I was surprised when the name John Grundy came up in conversation the other day.
Well if you reside outside the North East of England you might well ask, but he’s a former teacher turned historian, writer and TV presenter. He first came to my attention in the 1980’s when he produced a series of programmes for the BBC that were broadcast in the North East of England. Entitled Townscape they focused on interesting buildings in the region.
You can see why I was surprised.
Sitting drinking coffee in Newcastle today I was wondering what to shoot for the blog. The look on this little boy’s face as the pigeons he was feeding suddenly too flight was interesting, but not enough to make a post out of.The light was directly opposite me so I thought about some backlit images. There were plenty of smokers about so I took advantage of their habit to feed mine.
Ultimately it was unsatisfying though; what I really needed was a glorious redhead to walk by and let the light set her locks aflame. There was none. The woman at the table beside me might have qualified, but she was going nowhere fast.
But as I left I was reminded of Grundy. One of the things that has remained with me from watching his programmes is to raise my eyes above street level to see what the environment has to offer, though of course it’s a characteristic that photography encourages and benefits from.
I had only to walk 50 yards to find so much.
And if they shout
Don’t let it change a thing that you’re doing
Hold your head up
With a bit of time to kill before meeting my daughter for lunch in Newcastle the other day, I naturally wandered the streets in search of some inspiration. I love shooting in this city as there’s always something to photograph, and even the old favourites have a habit of revealing something new each time; this shot of the Millennium Bridge is given a different feel by the inclusion of the autumn foliage for example.
My favourite parts of the city can be found between the tall central pinnacle of Grey’s Monument and the river, mostly because whichever route you take the steep contours of the descent towards the quayside come into play, leading to a jumbled roof-scape that when viewed from Gateshead allows you to pick out virtually every significant landmark, as if deliberately superimposed for the benefit of some corporate Christmas card.
And so, I started thinking about lines.
diverging lines…straight lines…
parallel lines…scattered, bent and broken lines…
even the line between light and shadow.
Returning home from this mostly architectural pursuit of delineation, I even found another blogger who had visited my sight seemed to be afflicted by the same obsession.
Perhaps the most interesting lines are not to be found in buildings however.
On my recent visit to Berkshire as my colleague Kevan and I returned from sampling the wares of the local hostelry, I looked up to a remarkable display of stars, which then prompted two middle-aged men to stand in the cold, trying to locate the scant numbers of constellations that they could both identify and name. There were never many in my repertoire, but even Cassiopeia was eluding me.
The reason we felt compelled to stop and stare was the absolute clarity of the sky above us; unusually cloud free after the weeks of heavy rain that have swept the UK, but also free from the light pollution that we’re accustomed to and that dims the heavens these days. Given our proximity to London, this seemed all the more unusual, and even though we were staying somewhere relatively bucolic, we weren’t far from the main road linking Reading and Newbury.
Perhaps prompted by the older image that I posed recently I thought that I’d take advantage the following evening and shoot some star trails; long exposure images that take advantage of the earth’s rotation to create whorls of light from the blurring of what seems to be the stars’ movement but is in fact our own. Most of these shots are composites of dozens of image files, layered using specialist software, though it is possible to do something similar with a single ultra long exposure, though this needs to be shot against an otherwise black sky to prevent overexposure.
Inevitably the following evening, our last in this location, saw the return of cloud cover, but the seed was sown. A couple of evenings later and on my way back from meeting my friend Nic and her new Mercedes I stopped off to visit and old friend and try again.
No cloud to speak of tonight, but shooting north, where the best patterns would be achieved was a non starter. The combined luminance of Newcastle and Gateshead put paid to that idea. There there were the two girls who turned up and walked through my shot. Not usually a problem with a long exposure like this; they should have blurred into invisibility – if they hadn’t decided to use their iPhones as torches. Suddenly the trails in shot became random and much brighter than planned. Fifteen minutes of standing in the cold while that particular exposure was recording was wasted. I shot some more, but the chill was soon getting to my fingers and I retired for the night.
Checking my results later there was nothing that came close to what I was seeking. The shots with a dark night sky showed no real movement.
I looked again at one of the overexposed shots (again marred by torch trails). It was out of focus too (tricky when shooting wide apertures to make the stars brighter) and yet it had an interesting feel about it. Crop it down to get rid of the torches and the glowing moon. Maybe has some potential?
Apply some texture layers? Hmmm. Maybe not such a wasted trip after all. The trails will have to wait for another day, but fingers crossed I know just where I’m going to shoot them!
On our drive home my daughter Meg was expressing her passion for conservation, and at snow point questioned the value of space exploration when we have so much work to do to preserve our own planet. On the face of it, a reasonable question, but the issue is more complex.
For me, exploration of any sort is about pushing into new territory and learning from the experience, both from what we discover on achieving the goal, but also from the journey itself. Consequently we have so many products and technologies in our lives that would not exist without that striving to achieve the impossible or improbable. How would Meg be as aware of the extent of global deforestation without satellite monitoring and communication technologies for example?
I have a similar view about modern art. I don’t always appreciate it or understand what the artist was trying to achieve, but the reflection that it provokes is enough in itself.
Yesterday I visited the Baltic again, and viewed the work of three artists. Salla Tykkä had shot and edited a number of video works; the one I viewed being about Romanian gymnastics. I could write in detail about the architecture of the training facilities, the disproportionate investment, the rigours of the training and the messages they conveyed in a country beset with huge financial challenges so in that respect the artwork had an impact. Did the video constitute art or was it documentary? The lack of commentary perhaps rules out the latter, and my response to it suggests it achieved a goal as the former.
On another floor a large construction predominantly of glass and metal, represented a collaboration between artist, Sara Barker, and a firm of architects Ryder Architecture. It left me completely cold, and though on a greater scale, reminded me of a piece if sculpture that I produced without any thought whatsoever as a piece of homework back in my schooldays. I smiled wryly at a book title in the gift shop later; Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That: Modern Art Explained
The final artist, Thomas Bayrle, was for me the most interesting, not because I’d be rushing to give a home to much or indeed any of his work, but it was the work that he had put into his art that inspired me. I was fascinated by his techniques more so than his subject matter, which ran the gamut from quirky portraits to graphic sexual imagery, building both images and sculpture from small pictures and objects into larger pieces that occasionally resemble the component parts, but at other times are transformed completely. Portraits for example that are made up of distorted photographs of church interiors. Very different to my approach to portraiture as in this image of Pauline.
I was clearly inspired in someway by the experience, looking more closely at some of the mundane details around me.
Quayside Car Park
Ultimately however, despite my reaction to Sara Barker’s piece, it was an architect working with glass and steel that gave me the image I was seeking.
The novelist Helen Fielding recently caused outrage amongst her fans when it was announced that in her latest book she had killed off one of the main characters of her hugely successful Bridget Jones series. Bridget was now a widow, having lost her husband five years ago.
Why should this cause such dismay? The man in question was no ordinary spouse. He was a Mr Darcy.
By replicating the surname of Jane Austen’s romantic hero, she automatically transferred some of his cachet to her character, albeit that the two are barely alike. Or were, when confined to the page. The duo were further conflated when Colin Firth, who in the eyes (and hearts) of many Englishwomen was the quintessential Fitzwilliam Darcy due to his role in a BBC production of Austen’s novel, was cast as Mark Darcy in the film of Bridget Jones’ Diary six years later.
That he should have captured the affections of so many was perhaps more due to Firth’s looks and an infamous wet shirt, than to the charm of the character. Austen’s creation is rude and stand-offish for much of the novel.
I met my friend Nicola who was in the role of agony aunt recently, and finding a walk to be a good vehicle for our talking we set off up the Derwent Valley with her young boxer. The valley is a wildlife haven, particularly noted for its population of red kites which have been successfully reintroduced to the area and so they and other fauna are represented in a series of sculptures that hide amongst the trees.
But our afternoon wasn’t about the kites. It was the utter ebullience of Darcy. You could hardly call him stand offish!