All About Eve

APW_9515My eldest daughter Megan is soon to being her final year at university; nine months of gestation leading to an outcome whose ripples will affect the rest of her life.  Whatever the outcome, I’m very proud of this  young lady, and have every confidence that she will rise to life’s challenges.  Being a woman, she will have to contend with many of the prejudices that come her way, but being Meg she will find a way to break through them.

In the last couple of days it feels like I’ve been bombarded with details that should just how far our world has to go in its treatment of women.  It began when I caught a snippet of Crossing Continents  on Radio 4 which was reporting on Chinese men from “bachelor villages” and their struggle to find partners.  In a variation on speed dating, the eligible women sat at red tables and the numerous men carried red roses.  Only if the woman accepted their rose, were they allowed to join their prospective partner to begin a conversation.  The story resonated with me as I compared my experiences from the world of online dating, but that’s a whole other story!  More to the point, this scene hinted at something far more sinister.  The social engineering that sought to control the country’s population through one child families, combined with a preference for male children created a culture where female foetuses were aborted and those who survived to birth often died through neglect or infanticide.  Consequently the nation faces a situation whereby there could be as many as 24 million more Chinese men that women by 2020.

The attitude to women as second class citizens was underlined because this week saw the conclusion of the Delhi rape trial that has galvanised opinion across India.  The four men responsible were found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging for their brutal assault on a 23-year-old student who died from her injuries two weeks later.  The court room has been besieged by protestors demanding the execution of these men, but there is a larger issue than the horrific treatment of this young woman.  A survey published by the UN this week, revealed that across many parts of Asia almost a quarter of men interviewed admitted to rape, and of these approximately half admitted to more than one instance.  Many saw it as their “entitlement”!  It will take more than the deaths of four men in India to change this.

Worst of all, I was talking to my friend Jane on Friday when she began to cry in response to something she had just seen; a report of an 8-year-old (yes, eight year old) Yemeni bride, dying as a result of internal injuries caused by sexual trauma on her wedding night with her 40-year-old husband.

There is a terrible conflict in Syria raging at present that has claimed the lives of over 100,000 people, leading to the leaders of two of the world’s super powers finally taking action to address it, yet this is seemingly a fraction of the numbers of women who suffer as a result of “cultural attitudes” that are left unaddressed.

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Meg

Megan is fortunate to live in a society which whilst imperfect allows women of all ages and races to contribute; at work, at home, and in the armed forces.  I despair at the prejudices that she and her sister will face, but I’m delighted at the freedoms that they will have in facing them.

Progress

The streets of towns across the UK are pock-marked by the decaying carcasses of what were once the heart of British social life.  Traditional pubs are dying.

Many put this down to the smoking ban that forced a large part of the clientele to huddle refugee like in doorways or in perspex structures like bus shelters for those waiting for the big C to come along and claim them.  Have we become more sober as a nation.  Not a bit of it.  There is still plenty of evidence to the contrary to be found littering the pavements of city streets on weekend nights, but the bar has replaced the pub and in a big way.  For those in the north of the country, there was always another alternative – if you were a member.  The working men’s club.  These places offered more through providing entertainment, be it a bingo night or a “turn”, and of course the added attraction of the arrival of the pies midway through the evening.  These are the places of legend in the north, and the birth place of many a comedian or singer who had to endure the baptism of fire of performing to those who were more interested in talking to one another than giving the entertainer a chance.  You became resilient and developed an attention grabbing talent, or wilted and faded away.

And then there was the other attraction of club life.  Cheap drink.  The Northern Federation of Working Men’s Clubs had their own brewery, known to all and sundry as “The Fed”.  Originally based in Newcastle it made the move to a site in Dunston when it’s further expansion was hampered by Newcastle’s historic city walls.  This of course was when the club was in its heyday.  In the last 30 years the number of clubs has more than halved and it continues to dwindle.  Consequently the Fed brewery was sold to Scottish and Newcastle Breweries a few years back, subsequently becoming owned by Heineken until production was transferred elsewhere and the brewery closed a few years back.  The only continuing presence was the Lancastrian Suite – a purpose-built centre with meeting and conference rooms for hire and a large hall with stage and balcony that became the venue for many a formal dinner until better venues like the Gateshead Hilton took away its raison d’etre too.  Dunston isn’t at the heart of the metropolis.  The brewery site has changed hands and the production area is now being demolished.  Imagine the volumes of beers and lagers that have been produced under this roof over the years.

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And who are the new owners?  None other than the Metro Centre (or rather the conglomerate owners of that shopping destination).  The Metro Centre was ground-breaking, being the first North American style shopping mall to be established in this country.  Modelled on similar venues in Canada (and virtually copying elements of Edmonton’s vast West Ed Mall) it has long since been surpassed by others who have come along since.  It is this desire for progress that has prompted the purchase of the brewery site – the Metro Centre apparently needs to offer its customers a broader experience, or words to that effect.  Many would feel it just needs to offer better access and parking without creating congestion on the A1M that passes alongside.

Looking about from the roof of one of the Metro Centre car parks at the scene below I was reminded of the soulless strip malls that pepper major routes in the States and Canada.  Whilst I won’t miss the brewery particularly, I won’t be too excited about its successor.

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Contrast is what makes photography interesting.*

Dashing into Newcastle today for an errand, I wasn’t sure what I’d find.  Many businesses would be closed for Good Friday, yet the major stores were all open.  Would the city be thronged with shoppers?  As it happened it wasn’t, which was strange given the slight rise in temperatures which was accompanied by blue skies and sunshine.

No matter if I don’t find people, perhaps today I’d focus on architecture?  From the roof of the car park it was impossible to ignore the magnificent curves of Gateshead’s Sage music and arts centre, and this inspired me to shoot some bracketed images for HDR processing later.  My hall has long been adorned with a moody photograph of the multiple towers of San Gimignano, and as this will be going elsewhere in my impending separation I decided to process the Sage in similar manner by way of a parting tribute!

Even the car park itself had possibilities for an abstract shot, but as it happened the architectural theme was not to be.

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Passing by Grey’s Monument it was impossible to ignore the number of evangelists carrying large yellow, numberplate-like signs bearing the message “John 3:7”.

“Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’”

Well it is nearly Easter after all.  I began to shoot some candids here, not sure what I would do with the images but certain I’d know it if I saw it!

It was as I photographed the last of the sign-wielders that I spotted another symbol of the season, albeit one corrupted to advertise a clothing store by riding a diminutive penny-farthing.  I wonder how effective this is as a marketing ploy?

_MG_0902-EditMaking my way back to the car park I was presented with an image that is always tempting.  People standing in doorways make great subjects, because the doorway creates a natural frame.  When the subject is photogenic in their own right it is all the more tempting.

_MG_0914-EditYet it was none of these that was my favourite image of the day.  A quickly snatched shot of an incongruous juxtaposition was my favourite.  I’d like to have framed it better, but I had to act quickly because one of the players was on the move, though the other was clearly settling down for a while.  Nevertheless a sharp stone corner provides a demarcation line between the subjects almost like a mirror, or the binding of two facing pages in a book.

A homeless woman sits or crouches with a thin blanket over her knees, and as many layers as she can muster to protect her against the coming night’s cold.  She is small and almost certainly hungry.

As I spot her she is joined on the corner by a well fed young woman taking a smoking break, presumably from a nearby Italian restaurant.  In contrast she is wearing little, and the clothes that she does have are stretched and pulled by a body that refuses to conform to some remembered size label.  She has no need to protect herself from the cold, she will shortly be back indoors and earning a living, but in the meantime she enjoys the extravagance of a cigarette.  It is an extravagance that her neighbour cannot replicate.   On seeing the other woman she turns her head away, and shortly afterwards moved to a new smoking spot, seeming offended by the person at her feet, and yet the real look of contempt is on the face of the woman she scorns.  She may be down, but she can still feel superior.

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*Quote from leading cinematographer Conrad Hall

Feline The Cold

The women of Tyneside are notorious for their determination to persevere in wearing of high heels and tiny dresses whatever the weather conditions may be. Come rain or shine, and even snow, the NCB (no coat brigade) can be seen around the Bigg Market and the bars of Collingwood Street. They seem impervious to discomfort.

Last night I returned to the world of photographing models, courtesy of a workshop provided by Eric Murphy of the world-famous Bananastudio and his team. When it comes to posing models, I lack any real degree of competence, and after a long lay off this was already exacerbated before you add in the factor that we were shooting on location in temperatures close to zero.

With a couple of layers on legs and twice that number on my upper body, I thought I’d be fine, which was true, though I was never comfortable. My fellow photographers were similarly attired, yet we grouped together penguin-like in the chill air (which was ironically appropriate to the night’s theme).

The metal of lights, stands, lenses and camera bodies leached the heat from fingers, and though I have some neatly designed photography gloves these were soon augmented by a second pair beneath. It was bitter._MG_0762

The performance of the models therefore was nothing short of remarkable. The theme for the evening was Batman; and here we had the two femmes fatale of the Dark Knight’s story. Selina Kyle aka Catwoman is the great unconsummated love, Pamela Isley (Poison Ivy) leaves him vulnerable to her charms through her expert use of toxins.  Neither is known for their heavily insulated fashion-sense; in fact later depictions of Ivy have her sporting little more than strategically placed vines.

The welfare of the models was more in mind therefore than improving my limited skills, because I didn’t want exposure to take on a new meaning in my life as a photographer.  In Ivy’s case the difficulties were increased by the limited vision she had as a result of wearing special effect contact lenses and perilous platform boots which were completely unstable on the cobbles where we were working.

All in all it’s a miracle that I got anything worthwhile, but thanks to the determination of Belle and Alexandra I did.

It wasn’t a lot, but enough for a Knight’s work.

Catwoman hits the High Level
Catwoman hits the High Level

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Life’s what you make it

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While I’m reading Christa Meola’s new book  The Art of Boudoir Photography, I’m looking for tips and techniques I can put to use in more mundane contexts.  Having read about her favourite lens choices yesterday I thought I might try shooting at 50mm all day today, as a focal length that is very similar to human eyesight.  Shame I left home without that lens today.

She also writes about how she uses music during a shoot to give “non-models” something to move and emote to, and in the book she gives a link to a playlist that she often uses.  I decided to build on this and create my own, and though I’m not sure when I’ll use it, if nothing else it gives some variety in what I listen to on long car journeys.

This morning I was planning just a short journey to Newcastle, and whilst there was a dusting of snow on my car roof, I wasn’t expecting much more when I set off.  Within only a mile or two the weather was making its intent clear.  _MG_8557-Edit

I turned up the heater and the music followed suit.  Initially I quite liked my music choices, but Talk Talk didn’t seem to fit.  Why had I put that in there?  Best delete it later I thought.

All in all less than propitious start to the day.

I was going into town to meet a woman who I met recently through an online dating agency, a relationship I knew that lacked romantic potential but was friendly enough.  “Why are you bothering to meet up then?” I was asked.

I was on time for the rendezvous, she was late (delayed by the weather).  I could have given up, gone home and written the day off as a failure.

I didn’t though.  S arrived without much delay and we had a pleasant time together before going our separate ways much as I would with any other friend.  Returning to my car I thought about where I might find some pictures, and how I might best use the lens I had with me.  As I did so I passed another cafe, and a much nicer one it seemed (The Garden Kitchen).  I spotted one of the staff at work who was continually smiling.  Someone clearly happy with their life at this point in time, and an obvious candidate for a picture, a picture that I really like.  She was a little embarrassed but flattered that I thought her smile worth capturing.  You can judge whether I was right; the shot wasn’t posed, this was how I spotted her.

Two weeks running when I've failed to get the name of a subject. Doh!
Two weeks running when I’ve failed to get the name of a subject. Doh!

During our conversation, S had mentioned that she couldn’t get on the car park roof as it was closed due to the volume of snow.  I wondered if I was too late as the initial signs suggested that it was already melting._MG_8576

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My effort in climbing the extra flights of stairs was repaid by the white rooftops of the city.  Another image worth capturing, but I still didn’t feel I had enough so as I was leaving town, I took a detour, parked at a roadside where the lines indicating that I shouldn’t be there were well carpeted in snow, and found a little alleyway to shelter in as I waited.

I wanted a shot of someone in a hood.

Hoods create nice shadows around the face and played a big part in two of my favourite pictures from last year.  Shouldn’t be difficult in this snow I thought, and I was right there were quite a few about… on the opposite side of the road and out range for me without risking a fall as I ran to intercept them.

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Instead as another couple ran hoodless across in my direction I watched as the man temporarily lost his balance and reflexively I took the shot.  Not quite dramatic enough to be worth keeping I thought, but then he approached me, asked to see the picture and gave me his card, requesting I email it to him.  Normally the way these things work is that I give other people my card when I’ve taken their portrait to reassure them about my blog!

Lots of umbrellas, beany hats and wet heads came and went, but no hoods, until I spotted a flash of pink from a small suitcase being carried by a figure in a parka who was crossing towards me.  A parka with a fur-trimmed hood.  I couldn’t see any face, for she had her head down against the weather, but I knew this was going to be my chance.  I stopped her to ask for a portrait, explained that she met my exacting standards perfectly (well she had a hood on!) and she agreed, although noted that she’d never been asked for a picture in the street before.  I can’t imagine why, for as she flashed a smile and tilted her eyes to the light  she made a great job of this one.  And yes, I remembered to ask her name.  Thanks Anita!

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Baby, life’s what you make it

Can’t escape it

Baby, yesterday’s favourite

Don’t you hate it

Everything’s all right

Life’s what you make it

Everything’s all right

Talk Talk

Lei aveva i capelli rossi bello

A rare day today; clear blue skies and bright sunshine but also because I have a day of holiday. Not to go anywhere but to attend to a few personal objectives, one of which was to have lunch with my friend Shirley who I have not seen since she appeared on this blog last year. She is slimmer now, her hair is longer; she looks great, but it’s not her fate to appear here today.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. On my way into Newcastle I passed the Northern Design Centre, one of a number of new buildings that have sprung up as part of the redevelopment of Gateshead. This is no ordinary building; at least externally, for as befits its function, the epidermis of this structure is a piece of interesting design in itself, so with the lighting conditions it was a great opportunity to create some interesting imagery.

Then onto Newcastle.

Now since I finished my portrait project I have missed shooting people so I limbered up with a few “men at work” shots while en route to Shirley. As you can see the term must be applied loosely!

I was meeting Shirley in a little piece of Italy called Pani’s, a great cafe near the sweeping splendour of Grey Street. Arriving early I grabbed a table near the window so I could spot her when she appeared. As I did so a beautiful signorina engaged me in conversation about my camera. With her cascade of flaming curls she wasn’t what you might consider archetypally Italian, though I know red hair to be more common amongst Venetians for example.

Now between my ring rusty portraiture skills, a new pair of glasses and a camera that has been swimming in the North Sea of late, I didn’t get as sharp an image as I would have liked. Nevertheless her smile and those fabulous tresses rise above my limitations stupidly I didn’t get her name so I must caption her as Woman at Work!

Felt good to have some humanity on my memory card once again.

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Leonie

 

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Very Scottish Widows!*

In Newcastle today to drop some images off for a client, so I just had enough time to stop in town to give today’s imagery a different backdrop.  With only 20 minutes or so to spare I made for Grey’s Monument, knowing it to be a good location to scout for people to shoot.

It was already wet when I arrived, a fine drizzle that didn’t concern me too much to begin with, but soon developed into a heavier mix of sleet and rain.  Those with sense sought shelter indoors or under hoods and brollies.  This bizarrely dressed promo-girl wore a flag on her back which seemed strangely prescient.

I hunted for an overhanging roof that would allow me to stay outside without risking my camera to the wet stuff.  Whilst initially I wondered if the conditions would allow me to capture something akin to Magnum photographer Trent Parke‘s fantastically backlit shot of pouring rain there was neither the deluge or the light required.  A pity, since there would have been a nice symmetry to recreating an image made by a man born in a different Newcastle.

Instead I found that my new vantage point gave me the opportunity to shoot some slow shutter speed images of the scattering of people that the rain triggered.The wet pavements also provided some great reflections so I took advantage of these and composed a shot with the monument at the heart of it, and then waited for the configuration of passing traffic to complete the composition.  Almost immediately I abandoned this when this mod arrived on his Vespa.  I considered him as today’s portrait but he was more Bradley Walsh than Bradley Wiggins, so I passed on the chance.

Not long afterwards I was doubly rewarded for my patience.  A single pedestrian walking my way completed the composition of the shot I wanted, her outline, elongated by the mirroring of the wet flagstones, echoing the verticality of the stone column whilst her umbrella did the same for the nearby dome.  Result #1 in the bag, but no portrait as yet.Time was up though so I abandoned my dry niche to head back to my car.  Sticking close to the wall and the protection it offered I had an astonishing piece of luck when a young woman in another doorway peered round the corner to see if the rain was abating.  The wet marble facade provided me with a slight reflection, and the coat over her head provided shadow to sculpt her beautiful face.  I wasted no time in asking her to recreate the pose and thankfully Laura agreed, because I love the result.

*Serendipitous trivia; the new Bond film, Skyfall, is released today.  What has that got to do with the shot?  The first woman to front the ad campaigns for the insurance company in the iconic black cloak was Deborah Moore, daughter of Roger Moore in a commercial directed by David Bailey!