Old Sites With New Eyes

I have on occasions been rather disparaging about my home city of Sunderland, particularly in relation to its attempts at public art. (Remember Ambit anyone?)

University buildings

So when the North East Photographic Network mailed me about an event they were running as part of the BBC’s Get Creative project, I felt I should be open-minded enough to go along. The event was a photo walk, a guided stroll from the university in the town to the National Glass Centre led by photographic artist Nicola Maxwell, who, together with the other photographers on the walk, might change my perspective.

Nicola’s own current focus (apologies but some photo puns are inevitable) is on found objects, inspired, in the same was a my Venice project, by the work of Irving Penn, and so before we set off she offered her supply of rubber gloves to anyone who wanted to adopt a similar approach, together with a stern warning not to touch needles!  Nothing to make me think differently about the place yet then.

Before long a small group of us were scouring the area beside the minster in search of interesting subjects.  Doorways, shadows, weeds and more were scrutinised for compositional elements which is when Nicola shared one of her interesting observations and one that did challenge my preconceptions.  The presence of mosses and lichen is far more noticeable in Sunderland than in nearby Newcastle, demonstrating that the air here is cleaner than in the neighbouring city.  One of the suggestions she made was that we pay attention to how the colours of these specimens changed as we neared the coast where conditions were even more favourable.

Was I tempted by the vegetation theme?  I fired off some shots but none that really pleased me.

Perhaps I should opt for more familiar territory?  A few years back I photographed a different individual every day in a doomed attempt to improve my portraiture.  That was back in the day when I didn’t really know what I was doing.   Looking at these guys at the pub in celebratory mood I’m not sure how much has improved, though my post-processing is less dramatic!

Then there’s a new attempt at public art, whose shadow I found more interesting than it’s actual structure.What about focusing on something grungier?  There’s certainly plenty to choose from, my favourite being the patch of solidified mud that included a single glove, and as seen here, a fork!

Since I spend so much time in other cities focusing on the structural this could have been the thing to get my creative juices going.

Not today however.  Venturing to the Glass Centre had brought me within easy reach of my beloved coastline so naturally I ended my trip there when the others were finished.  This being the year when lighthouses are a recurring them in my blog I thought to incorporate a little vegetation in keeping with the beginning of the walk.

The reality was that I’m more attuned to the simple pleasures of moving water and reflective wet sand.  I’m easily pleased.

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Lux Appeal

A recent email from Canon directed me to the work of a Merseyside hairdresser call Stephen McNally.  I should stress that it was his photography not his tonsorial creations that I was viewing and what inspirational images he produces; using long exposure techniques to smooth out the movements of tide, and blur wind-blown clouds into dynamic streaks.  If you’re interested in seeing his work the video I saw is here.  It was enough to inspire me to rise early in the hope of capturing something similar on the coastline where I used to live.

The pier and lighthouse at Roker have been the subject of a £1.35m restoration project over the last three years so I wanted to use the now pristine light as the subject with the effects of the long exposure providing the background.  I was doubly thwarted.  A recent storm had revealed a flaw in all that renovation with 100m of railings swept away resulting in closure to the public, and what’s more the sky was so cloudy that there were no gaps to create any sort of interest in the scene.

The previous day I’d listened to an edition of The Infinite Monkey Cage celebrating the need for science to constantly fail in order to learn and progress, and so I was determined to capture something from the trip.  As this shot of the Bede Cross shows I was never going to have enough drama in the sky to emulate Mr McNally so I resolved to make use of the lighthouse but from a different vantage point; the cliff tops.

The Genoa lanterna, St Mary’s and now Roker Pier. It’s early in the year and already I’ve photographed three lighthouses.  Looking back through the blog and there have been others here too; Orford Ness, Longstone, Coquet Island.  These structures have a great deal of appeal, and not just to me.  The gallery hosting site ViewBug regularly has challenges and contests for images of lighthouses, and of course there is a huge variety to be found around the globe.

Perhaps it’s the verticality of the tower in stark contrast to the horizontal horizon that is provided by the sea; a straight line that is rarely seen when so many of us live in cities.  Maybe its the dichotomy that these solitary structures are built to reach out and communicate to distant travellers.

Some have postulated that for we Brits, an island nation, would have a special affinity with the lighthouse that cares for the shipping that is the lifeblood of our international trade.  They’ve provided inspiration for other artists too whether Constable’s paints or Woolf’s ink.

Perhaps there’s something else that attracts us; a sense of impermanence.  Though the structures themselves are by their very nature robust enough to take the worst that Neptune can deal them, they no longer have lighthouse keepers to tend them; automation put paid to that.  Many, like St Mary’s, have no light to shine; who needs a light when you have access to satellites?  For now local authorities, volunteer groups and organisations like the National Trust maintain these pointers to our naval history, but for how long I wonder?

No Guarantee

The landscape and outdoor photographer Matt Kloskowski is also well-known in photography circles for his training videos and helpful presets for use with Lightroom, so from time to time I dip into his website to see what’s new that I can learn from.  On my last visit I couldn’t resist a headline promising me the secret of getting “epic” landscape shots.  The fact that the article describes this as a “not so secret” tip should perhaps have prepared me, but I couldn’t help smile when I read his suggestion; move to the place you want to photograph.

It is true that the most impressive photographs I’ve seen of both land and seascapes have often come from those who live nearby; I know from my own years of living by a particular stretch of coastline that the sea conditions, the light, the clouds, the time of day, the weather and the people on the beach and in the water are always changing so someone with local knowledge should best be able to predict when these changing elements will align in your favour.

untitled-3-EditSo it was that I expected to be able to produce something worthwhile when I returned to that coast with Jane for the weekend, and as we dressed for dinner the sunset and moon hinted that there might be good things to come the following morning, and so it might have been, but I must confess that a different combination of elements came into play as the excesses of the previous evening, a leisurely breakfast and the hotel pool meant we didn’t actually set foot on the beach until long after the golden hour.

I was still hopeful; with clear skies at sea and a haze over the land perhaps I might find something worthwhile?

untitled-7-2I’d shot relatively little though when we sat down to watch the world go by.  A couple eating ice-creams on a cold autumnal day produced a sort of “winter fashion” type shot, and a man with his dog contributed a moment of action, but neither really go my juices flowing, so as we sat the camera inevitably found its way into Jane’s hands for another piece of instruction on how she could best shoot something.  She looked around for things of interest and shot that hazy sky; a nice abstract.

Spotting a stretched out line of cloud that paralleled the horizon and drew the eye to the lighthouse she produced what I felt was the best shot of the day.

So much for local knowledge.  Competitive?  Me?

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Flying North

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I’m staring right into the light
And I’m drawn in like a moth
And I’m flying North again…

Thomas Dolby – Flying North

To be fair, I wasn’t flying.  I’d driven to the first of my three stops this morning, but the moment I stepped from the car into wind ripping along the North Sea coastline, becoming airborne was a distinct possibility.

My “home” beach is of course the elongated bay of Whitburn, Seaburn and Roker, but since moving away I’ve visited a number of other stretches of golden sand in search of something to point my lens towards, so this morning took me to spots that I’ve never visited before, despite being a resident of the North East for all of my life.

Emerging from the Tyne Tunnel I began in Whitley Bay, a town famous in my youth for its amusement park; the Spanish City immortalised by Dire Straits.  When I worked in Whitley Bay 20 years ago it was closed and decaying; the seaside resort becoming better known for its pubs and clubs.  This era too has passed, Newcastle greedily snapping up the Geordie Shore element in its endless maw of happy hour bars.  My objective was a little north of the town, the island of St Mary’s and the lighthouse upon it are iconic to photographers, so it was an obvious target.

The lighting and sea conditions weren’t going to provide anything truly outstanding, but I managed to snatch a few HDR shots before the wind was joined by rain and this was not the place for a camera to be abroad.APW_5400

I stopped next at Seaton Sluice, but have been here before so grabbed a single image to evidence my return, but with the driving rain continuing took little persuasion to hurl myself back into the shelter of my car.APW_5413_4_5-2

By the time I got to Blyth, the rain clouds had been pushed out to sea and the sun was shining.  I’m far less familiar with Blyth, though in the past its residents have been notorious for drug use, providing a steady stream of residents for HMP Acklington a little further up the coast.  Attempts to regenerate the town, have focused on the beautiful stretch of coastline that it possesses, and the installation of two rows of beach huts has generated more interest than could possibly have been imagined.  I felt obliged to shoot them, but it was the shore that I loved so much.

Blyth, Beach Huts
Blyth, Beach Huts

The lighthouse, breakwaters, and wide open skies were beautiful.  I’m sure I’ll be back.

But there was more to explore still.  Newbiggin boasts an artwork which required a far greater degree of investment than Blyth’s wooden shelters, yet it has proved to be highly controversial.  Sean Henry‘s Couple, a painted bronze of a man and woman staring out to sea seems innocuous enough, and even though they represent a view of North Easterners that some feel falls a long way short of aspirational,  his work Man with Potential Selves in central Newcastle draws very little criticism, or indeed attention.  What makes Couple so different is the scale.  The figures are set on a large white platform on the town’s sea wall, making them hard to ignore if you are looking out to sea as so many of us do, hard to ignore because each of these figures is as tall as a double-decker bus.  APW_5646

Sadly it was one of those artworks that left me unmoved, though the sculpture has featured in some beautiful imagery, though inevitably it is the sea and sky that provide the drama and the pictures work in spite of rather than because of the sculpture.

Nevermind.  My memory card already held something truly beautiful, at least to my eye.  It features the first of my pitstops, but shot from the third.  Even the iconic St Mary’s can provide a shot that stretches way beyond cliché. (It’s worth clicking to view as large as possible)

St Mary's Lighthouse, from Blyth South Beach
St Mary’s Lighthouse, from Blyth South Beach

Sprung

Finally a sign that Winter is relinquishing its grip.

Not only did the sun shine, but it did its best to raise the air temperature too.  Not enough to have the beach swarming with swim suited sun worshippers, but enough to create a haziness as water vapour rose from wet sand into warm air.  The thermometer had climbed into double figures.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to shoot at first.  There was a moment of drama with a runaway horse when I first arrived, but it was already moving away from me, presenting me with poor angles and a diminishing subject.     I wasn’t in the mood to go looking for portraits so that left me with landscapes to get started with.  The beach was stonier than usual, still bearing the shrapnel of every winter storm, so I incorporated these into a few shots.  Nice enough results, but I remained unsatisfied. (click any image to open a full size slideshow without the cropping)

Maybe some candids would do?  I switched to street photographer mode but there was little to interest me.  The three elderly couples sitting and staring out to see lacked any sort of animation to lift them out of blandness.  I took a few shots, but they went straight into the recycle bin once I began processing.   As I mused on what to try next another sign of Spring appeared.  This lady is a regular rider along the coast, and I have not seen her for some months, or if I have she was so wrapped up in waterproofs as to be unrecognisable.  Good to see her in her vernal plumage._MG_1034

Looking back to the waterline I saw my chance.  A small group of men seemed to be taking turns to race a horse-drawn buggy along the expanse of sand exposed by the retreating tide (or maybe it was the same guy with a group of fans waiting to judge every run he made).  If he set off once more, I would have time to get into position before he made the turn to come back and perhaps get some shots that captured the action.  I was in luck.

As he raced South, I ran down to the shore to find a spot somewhere near the tracks he had left, thinking as I did that I must remain visible even if crouching.  Being mown down by a galloping horse wasn’t on my to-do list today.  The first shot was good, the angle allowing me to see the faces of both horse and rider, as well as a flowing mane to create movement.

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The second shot was good too.  Horse airborne and sharp, muscles, veins and ribs revealed by the oblique lighting.

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And then the third.  Initially I felt it lacked something.  Shot side on, the lack of any angle made it feel flat, but the mane and tail flowed nicely.  Could I give it anything in processing?  Judge for yourself.  I found the use of overlays to dirty the sky and sand helps give more movement and drama.  This is my favourite, but which one is yours?

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Fight!

This is not an invitation to my alliterative best friend to display her martial arts, arm wrestling or pillow pugilism skills.  It is rather a memory from three decades ago.

Let me explain.

In the far off days when I was a young and naive banker, someone in Personnel made the decision that it would be good for my development and leadership skills if I were to attend an Outward Bound course, which would instantly transform me into a dynamic and assertive leader.  I hope they claimed a refund if that was there hope, but nevertheless the experience has stayed with me, and shaped the person I am now.  This was the first true adventure of my life, and without it I may not have pursued so many of the others that I have experienced since.  The three weeks of mountain skills, rock climbing, canoeing, fell running and so on weren’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, but they gave me a love of landscape and the outdoors that more recently has taken me to Asia and Africa as well as many more wet (and occasionally not so wet) days in England’s Lake District.

One of the many activities that I undertook for the first (and only time as it happens) was Orienteering.  There are checkpoint symbols dotted about the promenade near to where I live, but I have never seen anyone use them, so I don’t know how popular the sport is these days.  Has it been overtaken by geo-tagging?  Anyway, in our case the route we ran was to be nowhere near as flat or open as the Seaburn coast.  We were to race through a densely planted pine forest.

For the most part, this wasn’t a problem, with pathways and fire breaks to run along in search of the red and white markers that signified a control point, but often as we neared our objective we would realise from our maps that the actual objective was not on the road or footpath.  It was somewhere in between, requiring a plunge into stiff brush with the added bonus of sharp pine needles that pierced clothing from every angle.  Our instructor laughed uncharitably at our cuts and scratches as we completed the course, and asked how we had enjoyed pushing our way through these natural barriers.  The technical term for such terrain he told us was “fight”.  It must have seemed appropriate for I still remember it clearly over thirty years later.

I was reminded of it again today, though not because I was doing battle with pine trees.  The UK has been battered by wintry conditions that have brought heavy snow and disruption to much of the country, and whilst we on the North East coastline have escaped the whiteness, the cold and driving winds have made their presence felt here regardless.

It was as I parked the car ready to take some pictures that the term “fight” returned to mind.  Fighting to control the car door from being forced to angles that its hinges had never anticipated, fighting close the boot as the wind inverted the parcel shelf into a wedge that prevented closure, fighting to remain steady enough on my feet to keep an image in focus.  I failed at the first attempt, but this plant amply demonstrates the conditions I was facing, as did the grasses nearby.

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On the beach I am accustomed to seeing the wave tops turned to spume by the power of the wind.  What I am not so used to it seeing it spread right up the beach by the forces at work.

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Here the fight was to make progress against the forces of Euros and the fight to catch your breath as the wind whipped it away from you.  As I looked into the distance I could see great eruptions of white water and knew immediately that I must head that way for a shot that I have long wanted to capture; waves breaking over the Roker lighthouse.

When I got there I positioned myself on the bridge over Roker Ravine, both for shelter and the fact that its parapet was at perfect height to support my camera.  I was working with both teleconverter and zoom lens so wanted to be as steady as possible.

I focused on the lighthouse, and waited.

I recomposed the shot slightly.  And waited.

I fired off a few test shots.  And waited.

Though I was wearing my photography gloves which give snug protection but for a small circular hole in each thumb and forefinger which can be stretched to allow flesh access to controls, the heat conducting properties of camera and lens were chilling my fingers uncomfortably.

I changed my autofocus point.  And waited.

At no point did any wave reach the North pier with sufficient force to be thrust skywards and over the lighthouse.  There were a couple of minor attempts which made nice enough pictures, but nothing with the drama that I was seeking.

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Was the tide too far out to be deep enough?  Or too far out for waves to be forming at the right spot.  I don’t know.  What I do know is that at the South pier, where there is no lighthouse to provide a benchmark for height, all hell was breaking loose.  It must have been down to the angle of the wind but in the fight for the picture I wanted today I lost.

I did get a consolation prize though.

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Postscript – 24th March

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The following morning saw very similar conditions, still no waves over the lighthouse, but some drama nevertheless.  The wind had brought down a lamppost yesterday, and in a mood of caution the local council decided to fell another half dozen just to be cautious!

Finding “the special one”

Spoilers – there are no references to Jose Mourinho in this piece.

Apart from that one.

With my camera and I soon to be parted in the interests of repairing the damage caused by recent exposure to sea water, today was my last chance to go and get some pictures to blog about, and it being a Sunday that meant dropping Holly off at work and strolling down to the beach.  Although I’ve done so many times before, and must have covered every inch of the stretch between Whitburn and Seaburn, I am always optimistic about finding something.

I recall that when I started blogging my goal was to  find one or two images that pleased me every week, so that I could build a portfolio of 100 images over a year.  The goal hasn’t really changed that much, I’m less demanding in terms of the time constraints (I’d be happy with one or two truly outstanding shots a year) but my standards are much higher.

I hadn’t checked the tide tables when I left, so wasn’t sure how much beach I’d have to work with and it proved to be relatively little.  I headed north to where the sandy bay finally gives way to a scramble of rocks and seaweed, deciding whether the tide was in my favour (receding) or not.  I decided not.  Don’t hang around on the rocks waiting to be cut off then!

Finding a patch where the underlying rock was giving way to breaking waves I found a patch with some interesting formations and the occasional patch of sand for variety and shot away.  There are the images that I would have been really pleased with in the  past, but now left me unmoved.  There was probably something to be captured here, but I wasn’t getting it.

Time to get back to safer territory on the way.  I could have stopped for some shots of the dippers, but lens choice was a limiting factor and there was nothing here that inspired me to do something different with the shot.  I was certainly wary of getting too close to the water again!_MG_7748

I could have looked for someone interesting to be my subject, but there was no action on the waves, and relatively few people about on the sand so that didn’t look promising either._MG_7755

Now I love repeating patterns in pictures (perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to the sea so much) so that was my next thought.  The green railings that extend for the couple of miles from Seaburn to Roker have always pleased me.  Perhaps I should make a feature of them.  Now I’m usually ambivalent about pictures which have been desaturated bar a single element (it was very fashionable in wedding photography for a while), but here I think it just about works.

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I still wasn’t happy though.  I was bracketing my exposures (shooting over and under exposed shots as well as what might be considered a normal exposure) in case I wanted to process any HDR (high dynamic range) images later, where having the extra information from multiple exposures allows more detail to be revealed in the shadows and highlights.  The textures on these rusted tubes benefited from that approach, as did the grain in the wooden slats of this seating.

I turned to take another shot of the railings and was looking at the over-exposed frame which allowed the sandy background to disappear leaving me with some texture on the nearest ball, tailing off into beautiful bokeh.  Here was the shot I wanted.  It may not mean much to the casual observer, but to me it was the special one.  No need to look any further.

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