The Ups and Downs of Creativity Pt II

Whilst my last post demonstrated the upside of allowing the rules of creativity to guide your behaviour, this one certainly features some downs; quite literally.

After a week of continuous rain I hadn’t shot any pictures, and so made plans to photograph the outgoing tide at Sandsend near Whitby where old timbers create interesting patterns in the waters.  I’d checked tide times, light direction and weather forecast so was all set…. but at the back of my mind I was also aware that all of this rain might make a slight detour worthwhile.

If I visited Falling Foss first I should get some shots of the waterfall in full flow and make it to Sandsend for high tide.  My first mistake was parking in an overflow car park rather than the real thing, but this just meant a stretch of walking downhill to the waterfall.  I found a small fenced-off viewing area and took some shots of the cascade which is anywhere between 10 and 20 metres high, depending on which website you consult.  I even climbed over that fence to move a few yards to one side, trying to get a view without trees obstructing the view, but in truth I wasn’t really satisfied and felt that I had wasted my time coming.  I looked for a safe way down the cliff but the only possibility seemed to involve a substantial jump into a quagmire so returned to the fence, hoping that Sandsend would be more productive.

That was when I met a young couple and was asked by the man whether there was a way down that his partner could manage.  My decision not to proceed had been governed slightly by 15kg of equipment, but given that the lady in question was carrying a papoose with a small baby I was clear in warning against it.  We talked for a while about the waterfalls in the area (he had swum in the pool below Thomason Foss) and then went our separate ways.  He had reminded me however of something I’d read that declared Falling Foss to be one of the best UK waterfalls for swimming.

Connect, and be receptive – there must be a way down!

And so I followed another path which was heading downstream in the hope that there may be some steps down the cliff to the riverside.  I didn’t find any, but after a while there was a less dangerous looking slope, with enough trees dotted about to break one’s momentum if a footing slipped, which it did, several times.  Nevertheless I made it down to the riverside and was rewarded with this cascade pouring over a fallen log.

A passing dog walker who told me that there was a route to the falls from here, but that it was a bit muddy.  She’d given up because her small daughter had lost heart.  I shouldered my bag and set off.

Her definition of “a bit muddy” and mine clearly differed, especially when my shoe was sucked off and forward momentum planted my sock-clad foot shin-deep in more of the stuff.  I made it to the base of the fall, but I’m not sure it was worth the trouble.  Trying to find a shorter way back I was within a few feet of the viewing area but the last stretch of rock offered no purchase so it was back to the original slope and more of the mud.

Not being blessed with much upper body strength, having to haul my way back up that incline by tree roots and saplings was a challenge, so I was really glad to have that uphill walk back to the car when I finally made it.

Bloody creativity!

Why had I brought so many lenses and added all that weight to my bag?  The answer was in the boot of my car…

Being receptive means being ready when the opportunity arises.

 

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The Ups and Downs of Creativity Pt I

Some weeks ago I wrote a series of articles on LinkedIn about the rules, or precepts, of creativity and how I have applied them both in my work as a facilitator but also in my photography.  These rules (as defined by the Open University during my MBA) don’t take equal billing, and indeed remembering all twelve of them can be an effort, but one of my favourites is this:

Connect, and be receptive.

It encourages me to be alert to the world around me; the things I see, read, hear and experience not just as passing sensations, but as opportunities to exploit.  In my training work this enables me to find activities and anecdotes that bring my content to life, however this post, and the one that follows it, are about the ways in which this might influence what I photograph and how.

Since being made redundant last year I have worked occasionally as a film and TV extra, or supporting artist as the industry jargon prefers.  Aside from the economic drivers for doing this, I’ve long been interested in these media, and it allows me to feed my inner diva while I’m not standing at the front of a training room.  More than that though it allows me to see how scenes are shot and lit, so developing my own knowledge as a photographer.

These productions are tightly controlled to prevent press leaks and so on set photography is not allowed (unless you’re a cast member continually taking selfies), and posting details of specific shoots on social media would soon see you dropped by the agencies who get you work.  Understandable, but such a pity when many productions have great costumes and make up.  All the same in the areas off set, you will see us all snapping away with our mobile phones to capture our latest looks.

Most of my work has been on location, but recently I was working on a set built in a studio and so the holding area where we waited was actually still in the studio but beyond the walls of the constructed set; a 1950’s nightclub.  Since the whole space is painted black a large fresnel light had been set up and pointed at a white backdrop to reflect light into the whole space.  Immediately I could see the potential of the way this soft directional light was falling across people’s faces, so I came equipped the following day and began asking my colleagues if I could photograph them.  Needless to say in this situation I had plenty of takers and so I shot a gallery of film noir type images to share with them, taking advantage of the light and the costumes to add to that style.  Someone even took one of me in return.

The images I produced weren’t about my skill with the camera.  They were about my ability to see the opportunity and act on it.  Connecting and being receptive.

Part II gives a less straightforward example!

History Repeats Itself

In the aftermath of the Notre Dame fire, the world can consider itself fortunate that this magnificent building was not completely destroyed, whilst interesting questions are being asked about any restoration work.  Should it replace the spire as it was, or opt for a modern replacement given that the spire itself wasn’t original?  Or how about trying to restore the building to its medieval look before the spire was built in the 19th Century? There are valid arguments for each.  Macron has promised something better in its place, an easy promise for a politician with a short tenure compare to the time it will take to complete such work.

What is interesting is that the building was never intended to become so significant; its contents, or more specifically one relic was to have been the focus of the religious tourist trade to the city.  Notre Dame was begun in 1160 and was mostly complete a century later,  yet when Louis IX bought the Crown of Thorns in 1238,  he placed it in the nearby royal chapel of Sainte-Chapelle (another exquisite gothic structure).  The Crown remained there, until the French Revolution when it was moved to Notre Dame.  Those who believe in the veracity of such relics will be relieved that it survived the blaze, and yet most will be more concerned about the damage to the church.

A few decades later (though details are sketchy as to its origins) another artefact linked to the crucifixion took up residence in Turin, again in premises owned by royalty.   You may not have realised that the “real” crown of thorns was in Paris, but I’ll be bet you know where the Turin Shroud is!  The medieval city (and the church) made sure of that by incorporating it into all sorts of imagery, even though it had been challenged as a fake as early as 1390.  Carbon dating also places its origins in this period!

Still, why spoil a good story.  We may be more aware than ever of how fake news is spread but the phenomenon is not new.  Turin continued to trade on the relic, and in the 17th Century a special chapel was built to house it under the direction of Camillo-Guarino Guarini, an architect and mathematician of the region.   That mathematical brain was given free rein here as he incorporated all manner of geometric shapes into his design. The chapel interior, and particularly that of the dome is far more spectacular than a piece of stained fabric, though it has yet to overshadow its relic’s reputation in the way that Notre Dame does the crown.

And then in 1997 it caught fire.  Like the crown, the shroud was rescued, firefighters using sledgehammers to break the display and bullet proof glass that contained the cloth.  The shroud was safe, Guarini’s masterpiece was not.  The floor of the chapel was a metre deep in marble fragments and molten bronze.

The restoration of Notre Dame is expected to run to billions and Macron is predicting it will take 5 years.  Il Cappella della Sacra Sindone cost only €30million but required the reopening of an old quarry to match the black marble, the construction of an oil-rig-like scaffold inside it, and took 21 years.  The altar remains untouched; some parts charred, others burned away completely but the rest is magnificent.

I’m sure Notre Dame will bask in the sun once more.  If we’re patient.

Site for Sore Eyes (Pt III)

The third and final jaw dropping moment I experienced in Sicilian churches was not in one of the UNESCO World Heritage Site listed buildings; it was the Jesuit Church of the Gesú in Palermo. This is not Arab Norman (hence its exclusion from the list), and being constructed during the 17th and 18th centuries is very much of the baroque, but it is an astonishing building all the same.

But I won’t be sharing it with you.

The church is an extravagance of multi-coloured marble bas-reliefs that demand your attention. Unfortunately the church authorities demand that you take no pictures (and even had a young lady hiding behind pillars to catch any who would transgress) so all I can recommend is that you look here, or better still go and see them for yourself.

I’m assuming the decision to prevent photography is based on revenue.  (There were no worshippers present to disturb, and being flashless and running on silent mode I’m discrete anyway).  By keeping control of imagery the church can presumably sell postcards and other publications, but I do wonder at the logic.  I didn’t buy anything, but if asked to pay a photographer’s fee (as I’ve done in cathedrals such as Ely or Bologna) I’d be happy to do so.

Instead I will share a little about Santa Caterina; a church with some similarities (though built before the Church of Gesú) but which left me feeling a sense of distaste rather than wonderment.  Appropriate that it should therefore form one side of the “Square of Shame” that I wrote about recently.

Before I entered the body of the church to view the multi-coloured marble there I took a short tour of the rest of the complex; a female Dominican monastery where I and another visitor were accompanied by both a tour guide and a security guard!  Perhaps understandable had we been granted private access to the contents of the cathedral treasury, but here we were taken to rooms where the emphasis was on frugality, so what was being guarded, and from whom?  The last sister left about 5 years ago I believe.

At the heart of complex is a cloister with a beautiful fountain, which we were able to view from the balcony of one of the monastic cells and here was quite a contrast.  Plain rooms with a bed, a tiny wardrobe, a desk and a small cross overlooking the majolica and greenery outside…. but only if you were of a wealthier background and could fund the room with a view.  On the opposite side of the corridor the walls adjoined the streets outside and so no balconies here in case there should be any contact with outsiders.  Unsurprisingly the desks bore bibles, but also knotted cords with which the occupant could beat herself.  I’m sure I spotted a cilice in one room.

The indignities that these women faced were made clear one more as our tour took us to the room where they sang as part of the church choir.  Raised high above the nave of the church they were effectively caged; able to look down on the congregation but unable to interact in any way.  The male voices in the choir were at the opposite end of the church so no chance of fraternisation there either.

Many think of baroque magnificence when Santa Catarina is mentioned, but despite the polychromatic decoration it reminded me more of a prison, where there was one remaining piece of inhumanity.   Just to the right of the altar there is an opening in the marble with a rotating wooden platform within.  Here the unmarried mothers of the city would place their child and then see it disappear as the platform turned and the baby was taken into the monastery.  No one was telling what happened next.

A Site for Sore Eyes (Pt II)

The second location from the UNESCO seven that I want to write about didn’t move me to tears, but probably only because it followed so soon after the Cathedral of Monreale.  All the same it is an absolutely astonishing space.  I use the word space because it’s part of a building rather than the structure itself,  and I’ve already introduced you to the Palazzo dei Normanni.  Palermo’s royal palace naturally has a private chapel where the kings, viceroys and their families could worship.

Roger II of Sicily commissioned the construction two years after he became the island’s first king (I know, the name is confusing in that respect).  Eight years later in 1140 the structure was complete, though the mosaics that decorate it weren’t finished for a number of year after that.  Hardly surprising when you see the complexity and beauty of some of  the designs (those completed in the later decades of the project were probably local rather than Byzantine in their construction and are poorer quality).

Here though it wasn’t the mosaic artistry that caused my astonishment.  Like Monreale there are a number of architectural styles at play here; the doorway is typically Norman  and there are other Romanesque features to be seen.  The Byzantine influence is seen not just in the exquisite mosaics and the dominant image of Christ Pantocrator.  

The archways in the aisles are Arabic but rest on classical columns.

The feature that I found so fascinating was purely Arab.  The Muqarnas.

No, I didn’t know either, but it refers to a type of vaulting, though that hardly does justice to a work of wizardry in mathematics, art and architecture.   Known to some as “honeycomb vaulting” or “stalactite vaulting” the muqarnas is a method of transitioning different levels of a building’s ceiling, by encrusting them in a three-dimensional pattern that in some ways works like the jumbled patterns of a “dazzle ship”.   The style originated in the Middle East a couple of centuries before the chapel was built, though sadly one of the earliest and best stone examples is believed to have been destroyed by ISIS.   In an ingenious blending mosaic 8-pointed stars, that are Muslim in design, are grouped in sets of four to create a Christian cross.

Again I was hampered by low light and the difficulties of trying to capture images with a zoom lens but no tripod, but I was determined to see more of the detailed script and illustrations that adorned the ceiling.   Michelangelo is famed for the decoration of a chapel ceiling in Rome.  Sadly the artists responsible for the Palatine Chapel in Palermo did not achieve such fame, though in my book they would have been worthy.

As our world seems to grow ever more intolerant we see that almost 1000 years ago things were very different.  A commemorative plaque just outside the chapel records in Greek, Arabic and Latin the building of a clock in 1142.  Collaboration beats conflict any time.

So look closely at the muqarnas where Christian figures are surrounded by Arabic script, and hope that that spirit can be rediscovered.

A Site for Sore Eyes? (Pt I)

When I think of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, I tend to think of a single location such as Palace Green in Durham, where both Castle and Cathedral are found, or Studley Royal in Yorkshire, where John Aislabie added his estate and water gardens to the existing ruins of Fountains Abbey.  In Sicily though, I found the word “site” stretched to breaking point, for here UNESCO have granted World Heritage status, to what they call

Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale

That trips off the tongue doesn’t it?  What’s more the description that might suggest three locations actually relates to nine; for the elements located in Palermo include the cathedral, three other churches, a pair of palaces… and a bridge!  Furthermore, though Monreale is contained within the urban sprawl of Palermo it is a separate town,  and Cefalù is over 60km away as the crow flies.

So what were UNESCO thinking?  Well this scattering of locations are united by unique evidence of intercultural cooperation, describe by UNESCO as:

…the fruitful coexistence of people of different origins and religions (Muslim, Byzantine, Latin, Jewish, Lombard and French).

If you’ve read my previous posts from Sicily, then this multiculturalism will come as no surprise, but what surprised me was the impact that some of these structures (I didn’t visit all nine) had on me, and two in particular.

Bay of Palermo viewed from Monreale

From my brief visit to a cold and grey Cefalù I headed straight to Monreale where heavy rain and the fact that the Cathedral was closed made me question the value of a visit.  I persevered, killing time with a quick lunch and a when the rain stopped, a walk around the wet streets nearby (rarely great conditions for photography).  As I wandered I caught glimpses of a style I was to become familiar with on my travels around the island but I had no idea what was in store.

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When the doors opened once more people materialised from all directions, and with good reason.  I was immediately reminded of Howard Carter’s words on entering the Tomb of Tutankhamun; everywhere the glint of gold.  Not the gilt statuary and picture frames that you might expect in a catholic cathedral; here it was in mosaic and roof timbers, pictorial and abstract, above you and below.  With too many people around to deploy a tripod, and works too delicate to even consider a flash,  I wedged myself between pillars and into corners in an attempt to get the stability to produce decent pictures.  These don’t even begin to do justice to a building whose beauty literally brought tears to my eyes.  The nave shone with the Byzantine and the Muslim (those geometric patterns produced by a religion that shuns figurative representation), but beyond the altar the style changed.

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Here Baroque chapels revel in marble craftsmanship that anywhere else would be with a visit in themselves but of course the return journey to the exit doors was by way of that magnificent nave that would form my abiding memory.

Time to dry my eyes and return to the real world.

 

Slow, slow, quick, quick, slow

Back in the days when I first began dining out with any regularity there were only three choices in most locations; a curry (referred to as an Indian, though most establishments were run by Bangladeshis), a Chinese, or an Italian (usually pizza). Aside from that stereotyping that rendered the extensive cuisines of each country down to a single word, there were other expectations about the people who worked there. The “Indians” would tend to be very formal but keen to share a joke, the Chinese would be ultra efficient with little time wasted between courses, and the Italians would be slow.  

These are sweeping generalisations I know, but that was the typical experience of the time, and in some places I would guess it still holds true. I’ve no idea why the Chinese might work as they did, but of course there was a long history of British control on the Indian subcontinent which still left traces of “master and servant” in the relationships between the two peoples.

As for the Italian approach this is much easier to explain. Eating is such a social event in Italy, and the enjoyment of good food and good wine is further enhanced by good conversation. We Brits may have looked at all the courses on an Italian menu and balked at the volume of food to be eaten if you opted for antipasti, primi piatti, secondi piatti, contorni and dolci (not forgetting the pane too!) but spread out over an entire evening this isn’t so unreasonable. When you’re eating alone as I usually am, it’s a bit harder to justify!

When my children were young we were in Tuscany and drove a few miles to a place that had been recommended to us. Our reservation was early and I think we were the first to arrive, sitting outside in beautiful sunshine. When we left it was pitch black, but the time had flown by, aided by the food, the proprietor’s singing and accordion playing, and conversation boosted by the presence at the next table of the author John Mortimer and his family.

So I was surprised when I had lunch at a newly opened gourmet snack bar in Turin (Lumen) and was told that their goal was to deliver “espresso everything”. Coffee of course, but food and drink delivered on the double too.

What made this all the more surprising is that Turin is the home of Slow Food, a movement that sprang from a protest against opening a MacDonalds at the foot of the Spanish Steps in Rome, and grew into a network across 150 countries that amongst other things promotes local and artisanal foods where the emphasis is on care over speed.  Turin is also the home of Eataly, a restaurant and grocery business that espouses Slow Food and is also developing an international presence.

So what were Lumen thinking about?  For me as a solo eater they nailed it.  The service was flawless and food delicious, but then the wine and the prosciutto had spent some time developing their flavours before they were sliced and poured so swiftly.  Best of both worlds.