Just a short walk from the manic bustle of Rio Tera Lista di Spagna is Campo San Geremia; a space to breathe, a space to enjoy the peace, a space to relax.
I’ve been following a blog called experiments in experience for a little while now, as it’s author, Verena Fischer captures street imagery in Berlin. She shoots exclusively in black and white, and whilst I wouldn’t shoot everything that she captures (I’m sure she’d feel the same about my photographs) the medium does work well in conveying a gritty, true to life feel.
This is my last weekend in this phase of my life, before I leave Sunderland and South Tyneside to begin a new adventure, and so as I was heading into town for a last-minute stock up on bubble wrap I decided to make it my final location here, at least for a while. I wasn’t immediately inspired by a town where photography is seen as such a fine art as to be worthy of combination with this service though…
Still, having got the supplies I needed, I made my way back to my car down a small alleyway that has often intrigued me, and where I have taken pictures before. In its few yards it contains three strange objects which many walk by on their way to shops and football matches, yet I wonder how many give them any thought. They intrigued me for years until I considered what lies beneath. They are directly in line with the rail station and are ventilation shafts to a rail tunnel below.
These great triplets are not the source of my fascination however, for deeper in the alley’s darker recesses there is treasure to be found. The side entrance of what was once a hotel remains as a two-dimensional reminder of past glories. It is now no more that a facade on the side of one of the shops of High Street, but I have come here many times to enjoy its incongruent beauty in decay. I believe it is all that is left of The Three Crowns, an establishment that closed in the year I was born.
Whilst there I was joined by a few pigeons so made them the focus of my attention for a while. I was hoping to strike lucky with an image of shopper and pigeon in step together but it didn’t work out. More often than not the birds would be scared back to their perch above the bar, so I turned my attention back to its tiled exterior. I’ve shot this scene a few times, but have never been entirely happy with the result. The angle of the alley makes lighting a challenge, but today it was in my favour. I deliberately underexposed to give richness to the shadows and then burnt the highlights back in when processing the image later. Far from being a ruin in a dirty alley it now has a more stately, even ecclesiastical feel about it.
Perhaps this was a nod to my new home, a small city with a religious history. The resting place of St Cuthbert, having been carried from Lindisfarne by monks in search of a suitable spot. They found a meander in the River Wear which was suitably imposing, though the subsequent construction of a magnificent Norman cathedral added to its majesty. The adjacent castle seems insignificant by comparison. I am of course referring to Durham, and what has become a World Heritage Site.
Where the view beneath the Wear Bridge in Sunderland had been of tyres and traffic cones embedded in the tidal mud, here the water bounced pure colour into my lens; water so inviting it demanded you join in and play with it. Another day maybe. I’ve learned to my cost to keep water and camera at a safe distance from one another!
The necessity of man to give way to topography in building this city is there in the conflicting lines that give drama to an image. In this case they take you all the way from the waterline at the river’s edge to the castle and beyond. The Cathedral had its moment in this blog quite recently so it can stay out of shot today. There is a sense of beauty and optimism about the place which is even reflected in a car park. How many car parks do you see commemorating something as special as this…
Mankind began domesticating animals twelve thousand years ago. Many mammals were bred for food and milk, and dogs became a trusted guardian and hunting companion. The first bird to be domesticated was the pigeon; there are records of this taking place 5,000 years ago in Mesopotamian cuneiform tablets.
Like so many of the other animals the birds were kept for food initially; the young birds generally grow to a good size before they fledge, making them an attractive option for breeders. At this stage they were no different to any other food source, but pigeons became so much more.
In the North of England (and many other parts of the world) there is a tradition of pigeon racing, a culture of breeding and raising pigeons that produced two objectives – race winners and show pigeons.
The first of these is based on the birds uncanny homing ability, they are able to return home over distances of 1000km even from locations that they have never been to before. One bird has been recorded “homing” from 1200 miles away. It is this ability that gave pigeons a new and more important role; from the late 19th Century until WWII the birds were used to carry messages in war-time – leading to occasions where some birds have even been awarded medals!
To pigeon fanciers they are “the thoroughbreds of the air”, but there is a downside. So many domesticated birds returned to the wild that our cities are now home to flocks of feral pigeons with a less attractive brand – “rats with wings”. The mess they leave can certainly be a problem ( Genesis asked “Who put fifty tons of shit on the Foreign Office roof?” on their ep Spot the Pigeon ), but they have a less justified reputation as carriers of disease.
The pest control companies have a vested interest in telling us how dirty and dangerous the birds are, although an attempt to pass the deadly h5n1 bird flu virus by dosing pigeons with a 1000 times normal strength concentration failed to infect them.
Some cities use raptors to control the populations, but today I encountered something I wasn’t expecting. A gull eating a pigeon! My wife was queasy watching this (she’d rather see a gull eating its natural diet of Gregg’s pasty!) but I thought why not – they’re certainly tasty! I don’t think it will catch on as pest control though since gull populations are as popular as pigeons.
Trafalgar Square was once famous for the large numbers of pigeons there (encouraged by the sale of corn to tourists) though this has declined since Ken Livingstone banned feeding. Photographs of Nelson atop his column with a pigeon on his head are a London icon.
In Newcastle I’ve shot similar pictures of Grey’s monument (sculpted by the same artist as Nelson), but the open area at the foot of column isn’t populated by pigeons so it becomes a popular rendezvous spot or simply somewhere to take the weight of your feet, which is where I met Paulo today. Originally from Portugal, he holidayed here 10 years ago, met a girl and the rest is history. He works at Grainger Market that I mentioned recently, and in his words “has everything I need here”. Nice.
He clearly has overcome the homing instinct.
This shot of Paulo is one of my favourites of the year so far and I’ve processed it in a slightly different way – let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.