A Christmas Carolyn

Sometime ago I was talking to Carolyn, an old friend and colleague, about the challenges of spending Christmas Day on your own and the consequent trepidation that I was feeling.  As you would expect from such an experienced coach and counsellor, she wasn’t going to let me get away with that for long, and we ended the call with me having made her two promises.  (How does she do that?)

The first was that I would get out and about with my camera and vicariously experience other people’s pleasure; seeing kids out and about with new toys and bicycles.  The second was that I should do whatever it took to enjoy the full Christmas experience at home, so should stock up with food, drink, films and the TV schedule and keep myself occupied accordingly.

Appropriately enough on a day when the rules of time and space have been rewritten,  I seemed to get my timings wrong for the first element.  I didn’t get up too soon, or rather, once I’d texted the one person I know would be at work at 7.30 today, I went back to bed and did resurface too soon.  I had a leisurely breakfast, showered and dressed, prepared some food for later and only then did I pick up the MKIII and head for Durham.  It was 10.05 when I arrived and even though I then undertook another of the day’s text conversations it was still way too early for signs of life in the city.  I wasn’t quite alone, there were the odd couple strolling here and there, an occasional elderly churchgoer, and of course some Chinese students taking pictures of each other.

These aside the roads, streets and alleyways were largely devoid of life,

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the Palace Green similarly deserted,

and even the great edifice of worship itself stood silent with not a carol or chorister to be heard, APW_5703_4_5 and while the Wear was in spate from recent rains, it flowed silently and unbroken by oar or hull.

APW_5718 As I left the city to prepare my lunch, the nature of my timing error became apparent as a steady stream of vehicles developed, all bound for the Cathedral.  I’m guessing that the morning communion service was at 11.00.  Still I was not downcast.  The clear skies and fresh air had done the trick, and I even had time for a sneaky selfie in a barber shop window.  Given the time of year I should have photoshopped a large red “E” to the right.APW_5713

I had no problem with the second part of Carolyn’s advice however! APW_5731


An Evening of Surprises

Unsure of what to photograph I dropped into Durham this evening, expecting to see the usual sights in the fading evening light, and in that respect, I wasn’t disappointed.  What’s more the river was so still it produced glassy reflections that demanded to be shot.

Nothing remarkable there then, but then the less usual sights began to manifest themselves.  The narrow streets were full of men in dinner suits and girls in cocktail dresses.  A little formal for normal sunday evening attire, but if I’d been thinking I would have realised that this is end of term, and therefore the various colleges of Durham University will be in full swing with Summer Balls and other post examination celebrations.  The third shot tells a great story of boy patiently giving his girlfriend support as, now that the venue is in sight, she changes into her party shoes at the last available moment.




Just below the bridge they were on was my second surprise.  A handful of fly fisherman were casting about in search of trout presumably, a very different approach to the anglers who have regularly featured on this blog when I lived by the coast.  This is a more active pastime, the line constantly flicked out and then drawn back in, as opposed to the cast and wait approach of their maritime brethren.



Up on Palace Green there was more evidence of party season, but more surprisingly the doors to the great cathedral were firmly shut.  APW_3963_4_5


This seemed wrong for a Sunday Evening.  Where were the sounds of evensong or the thronging of worshippers leaving to return home?  A glance at the notice board alongside revealed that evensong took place at 3.30.  Seems a strange way to define “even”.

There were other minor suprises to enjoy – a stack of restaurant furniture ostracised upon a bridge was one,APW_3996-Edit

a strangely ominous cloud formation including the number 3 another,APW_4108

but there was a more unusual encounter to come.

Descending to the Market Square I did hear the sort of singing I expected at the Cathedral.  The tune seemed familiar…  How Great Thou Art is a well-known hymn set to the tune of a Swedish Folk Song.  But which version was being performed?  I can’t be certain for the performance came from a solitary Asian man who, unused lyrics in hand, was projecting his voice across the deserted space,  presumably in his native tongue.  It was certainly a courageous performance.



Ironically for a photographer, I’ve lacked focus this week.  Nothing inspired me to go and point a lens at it.

This may have been because I’ve been working in a location that I’m very familiar with, and where I’ve been out to shoot the things that interest me already, but I have to question my motivation.

This isn't my bike btw!
This isn’t my bike btw!

I did take some pictures while out cycling last weekend, as I further explored my new home in Durham, but I managed to time this with the only few hours in days where the skies were overcast.  Perhaps that contributed to my torpor.

Shincliffe was my destination.  I’d been there the previous day to drop my friend Elaine off at the garden centre.  It is a village that consists largely of two perpendicular roads that both join a more major route that forms the hypotenuse of a small triangle.  Consequently, with no through traffic other than the green-fingered and its own residents, Shincliffe is a quiet spot that seems almost timeless.  This sense was compounded by the fact that due to the spending restrictions that local authorities are imposing the verges of the village high street have not been cut, leading to an almost meadow-like quality.

Shincliffe High Street
Shincliffe High Street

The effect is noticeable in many locations around the county, but here in Shincliffe it seems almost appropriate and creates a scene that may go back to when this chapel was built and earlier.

Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, Shincliffe
Wesleyan Methodist Chapel, Shincliffe

The village certainly has a history – the bridge over the Wear here may be built on Roman origins, though it was properly established in the middle ages, flourished briefly following the industrial revolution due the nearby collieries and then declined one again as they closed.

I’ve always associated the history of this area with the majesty of the Norman buildings on Durham’s Palace Green, but there is so much more scattered around here.  The remains of the most northerly villa in all of the Roman Empire were found nearby.

On my way home I passed through Sherburn House, a tiny cluster of houses on one side of the road and an imposing gatehouse on the other.  These old stones now form part of a residential home for the elderly, but in their time they were part of a medieval hospital established in the 12th century providing care to a large group of lepers.APW_3910

And yet for all of this opportunity to shoot something historic, it was a more modern image that provided my favourite.  This was regatta weekend in Durham, the Wear thronged with racing rowers and their supporters.  It might have been a great place to take pictures, but the cycle path I would have needed to get there has been swept away by heavy rain in recent months.  Nevertheless the boat houses, which populate the river banks face no such restrictions.  The picture I got isn’t high quality, because I needed to crop away most of it to get to the detail that caught my eye.  A simple study in straight lines.  The purple blades just give it a little oomph!APW_3884




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!