Michael Freeman’s books on photography recommend that in any street photography you should avoid eye contact with the subject. Eye lines in photographs create interest by drawing your interest in different directions around an image, so naturally a pair of eyes looking straight back at you undermines this.
Its different in portraits of course where the eye contact engages you with the character of the subject, but as street or candid photography is rarely with the connivance of the subject this is difficult to achieve for most people will react in some way to seeing a camera pointed at them so you lose the expression that drew you to the shot in the first place.
A city like Venice is the perfect antidote to this; everyone is so used to the brandishing of lenses in all directions that they rarely consider that they might be the subject of the shot so it is easy to capture a natural expression directed straight into your camera. I was already shooting out of the side of a vaporetto when this woman boarded and stepped into shot where the combination of her haughtiness and the Rembrandt lighting created by the canopy of the vessel made her a must.
I’ve written before about my work with students from overseas, and the way in which Asian students have a tendency to adopt “western” names. Although it makes my life easier, I have mixed feelings about this. Many Anglophones rely upon the fact that English is a universally accepted language to make not effort to learn another language, or even to reach for the phrase book when travelling abroad. Deplorable as this may be, not being willing to try to pronounce another’s name seems to be just rude.
It isn’t just Asians who encounter this problem – at first sight many Polish surnames seem to contain more consonants than the tongue can handle, yet by taking the time to ask every Pole I meet how to pronounce their name, any fears have been dispelled. I have some way to go with Sri Lankan names yet though!
The name of course is part of our identity, and in expecting others to change their names we meddle with who they are. I am adopted, so the name I have used for the last 54 years was not the one given to me at birth. I still remember how alien my “birth name” seemed when I first viewed my birth certificate. I’m a Paul, not an Ian. Also I use my middle name, because the first name given to me by my adoptive parents was also my father’s and grandfather’s first name, so Paul became the name of choice to avoid confusion. The other name is meaningless to me. Perhaps this explains my sensitivity to the name changes that others take on.
An article that I read in the Korean Times however suggested that the practice is perhaps not undertaken reluctantly. Adopting a Western name gives many a feeling of being progressive and global, and so become like nick names, representing another facet of an individual’s personality. We also forget that there a Christian communities around the world, and so many are actually christened with these names. A hangover from the cultural imperialism of European missionaries, and one which is not exclusive to Asia as we shall see.
Many of the students this week heralded from Lyon, and it is unusual for us to have more than one or two French students on the course. It seemed appropriate (though incorrect in terms of gender) that one of the Vietnamese students should have adopted the name Bon. Bonne n’est pas? Three letters though; couldn’t be simpler. However that is also true of her Vietnamese name Thi (pronounced Tea, and meaning poem).
It is also probably another sign of my cultural ignorance that I found myself saying “I love African accents” this weekend too. I wouldn’t say; “I love European accents”, I’d say German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish (or as my female colleagues seemed to prefer this weekend: French). However to my ear, which has been attuned to a few words of Kiswahili, but certainly no Yoruba or Setswana and yet regardless of the hundreds of miles that separate the nations I couldn’t tell distinguish a Tanzanian speaker of English from a Nigerian or Botswanan.
Anyway the bearer of the accent was Nigerian, with a fine Yoruba name. I liked the catch lights in her eyes as much as the tones from her mouth so she agreed to be photographed too. She has another name apart from the Yoruba. This is Clara.
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.
This post is really part two of my Southampton journey, but is tied in to the book that I brought with me; Elizabeth Messina‘s The Luminous Portrait*.
For a long time my exposure choices have tended to be dictated by what might be called a “normal” exposure, or even slightly underexposed where this would deliver richer colours. Rarely would I consider overexposure to be a viable option (though as my recent pictures of Jenny show, I would never rule it out).
Perhaps I need to think again. I recently learned that renowned beauty photographer Sue Bryce overexposes all of her work by a full stop, and this is similar to the approach espoused by Messina, though she exposes for the shadows, which then leads to the other tones in her pictures developing a glow.
Inevitably then, I’ve been experimenting with exposure in some of my pictures, but it was with people that I really wanted to try it. Without a muse on hand I returned to street portraiture in the hope of finding what I was looking for, and initially shot Kavya, a young Indian girl, though in hindsight realised that though I’d positioned her to get the benefit of a backlight into her coloured hair, I hadn’t then taken that a step further in getting a brighter result. Contrarily I processed it in monochrome!
On my way to dinner I shot a couple of frames of Jessica, an Eastern European but then accidentally deleted the overexposed version so was forced to try and replicate it in processing which doesn’t seem to have been a great success.
I even resorted to self portraiture for a while in trying to get something more interesting, but it was so hot in my hotel room that I stripped to shorts which then felt a bit weird taking topless pics of myself! The second has received some critical acclaim from my friend Jane though, so I’ll assume it was worth it.
So here are more Soton images, but with a little more light, and concluding with Damian who I met sitting outside one of the many bars in town that were taking advantage of the lovely weather. Inevitably he was a musician. Just as inevitably I didn’t push the exposure!
*btw – I wouldn’t recommend the book; very little content, spun out by repetition in my opinion. Maybe that’s why it didn’t make a discernible difference. 😊 Still she’s a great photographer.
As I went cycling this morning I was acutely aware of how much things had changed since yesterday. There was still some warmth in the air, but that air was moving much more rapidly. As both bike and rider’s knees creaked their syncopated complaint at the effort they were called on to make I pedaled on into the headwind. As I laboured along, my mood was not helped by the presumably Californian woman speaking occasional reminders of how much slower than my best pace for the same stretch I was.
The sky was heavily overcast too. Was I going to get a soaking on this ride?
The wind had of course announced itself to me earlier in the day when I quickly walked part of the beach in search of images. Today’s shoreline visitors had non of the leisurely approach of yesterday’s individuals. Today you were there with a mission, and you weren’t going to hang about in this wind once it was fulfilled. It was predominantly a day for dog walkers, and whilst their pets enjoyed the wide open space of a beach at low tide, the flying grains of sand forced their owners to keep their heads down. There were some who benefited from these conditions of course. As I arrived I could see one pale sail out at sea, but it was clearly going to be joined by others quite soon.
The wind surfer who stopped to provide me with a portrait was delighted. He’s been waiting forever for these conditions. Some were clearly enjoying themselves.
Others maybe weren’t!
As I completed turned to complete the loop of my bike ride the wind was now at my back. The voice from Silicon Valley soon changed her tune then!
When I was younger there was a popular TV series starring James Bolam and Barbara Flynn called The Beiderbecke Affair which dealt with a mystery relating to the theft of a collection of records by Bix Beiderbecke. I had no idea at that time that Beiderbecke was a real and very significant jazz cornetist and composer; I just know that I enjoyed the series. Whether this was down to the fruitiness of Barbara Flynn’s voice, which was always welcome, the jazz soundtrack (in the style of, rather than by Bix) or the quality of the writing I can’t remember. The series, and the two that followed were written by acclaimed playwright and screenwriter, Alan Plater.
Plater, who had studied at Newcastle University co-wrote the musical Close the Coalhouse Door, a political docudrama of the 1960’s based on the work of another northern writer; Sid Chaplin, born in a pit village but who went on to become an artist rather than artisan. Chaplin may be better known for another James Bolam series; When the boat comes in.
Another alumnus of Newcastle University was Ian Carr, who read English Literature there, becoming friends with Chaplin as he did so. Carr completes the loop, for as well as being a noted writer about jazz (his biographies of Miles Davis and Keith Jarrett are outstanding) was a trumpet player and composer, who wrote a suite of music dedicated to Chaplin entitled Northumbrian Sketches. I say closed the loop, but not quite. In his role as associate professor at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London he worked with a young man developing as a saxophonist and composer by the name of Tim Garland.
This weekend sees the Gateshead International Jazz Festival take place, and this evening the main hall played host to a fantastic concert. The first part featured the Northern Sinfonia, augmented by Tim Whitehead (who had played in Carr’s band Nucleus), Henry Lowther and Andy Champion in the first performance of Northumbrian Sketches to take place in the region.
After the interval this was mirrored by another suite of music for jazz musicians and strings when Tim Garland premiered his Songs to the North Sky, inspired by his love for the region which developed when he was commissioned to write for the Sinfonia some years ago.Although a “softy southerner” he put down roots here, and his family remain here while he travels. Both sets were outstanding, but Garland’s was given another veneer of quality by the inclusion of his colleagues from the Lighthouse Trio, Gwilym Simcock and Asaf Sirkis. For me the highlight of the evening was when these three played a 40 minute set in between the two orchestral pieces.
Simcock must be ranked amongst the top jazz pianists currently performing anywhere in the world and gives a virtuoso performance at the keys and under the lid, damping, plucking, beating and stroking the strings independently of the keyboard. Garland is similarly proficient, but it was Sirkis who fascinated me all evening. As a former pianist and singer, I am at a loss to explain what it is about creative drummers that fascinates me. Bill Bruford was the first to mesmerise me, and more recently Seb Rochford has done the same, both having the ability to work independently of the rhythm they provide to develop light and shade, humour and drama within their work. As former band mates of Bruford, it seem right that Garland and Simcock should have appointed Sirkis who also fits that mould. Looking like the love child of David Suchet and Brian Eno, he enjoys every exquisite touch of his colleagues, but then delivers his own contributions in equal measure ranging from moments of battery to passages of erratically ticking clocks. This included a one man tour de force centering around his virtuosity with the hang. Superb.
There were many present who were older than me. There may have been some younger than my daughter Holly, but regardless of the age of the audience everyone lapped it up. How could they not. Lighthouse left us beaming.
For the first time, some of these images were shot not by me, but by my young apprentice!
The Canon 5d mk II has its limitations it must be said, but then perfection is beyond all of us, so in the couple of years that I had mine, I loved using it. It felt at home in my hand, co-operated with most of my requests, and on occasion gave birth to some wonderful images, but all things must pass and in this case disaster struck. After an unplanned trip to the seaside she began to misbehave and despite my efforts at perseverance eventually had to accept that something was seriously wrong. The insurers confirmed the worst; I was never to see her again.
For a while I got by with an old flame and the help of friends, but eventually I had to move on, and today my new Canon 5d Mk III arrived.
Like any first date, there was some initial awkwardness. The new partner felt good against my skin, but things weren’t where I expected them to be! There were new aspects to the relationship that I wasn’t sure about. I was going to have to work at this. The new model was faster and sounded softer, and capable of so much more it seemed, with many more points to focus on. New levels of creativity were possible. My own weaknesses had been anticipated and addressed. There is real potential here.
Have I found my new love? Perhaps. The early signs are encouraging and I can’t wait to try more.
Thanks to Sev for agreeing to be photographed by the guy who hadn’t even worked out the new autofocus arrangements at that point!!!! She still gave me a beautiful smile despite it all.