…was my favourite artistic experience of my recent trip to Rome, where a Hokusai exhibit was consigned to the basement gallery of the Ara Pacis museum. Apologies if you’ve arrived here expecting some new insights into Japanese woodblock printing; I chose the title because I was constantly reminded of the collection as I drove around Sicily, where the white triangular cone of an active volcano dominates the landscape in a similar way. Fuji may be about 12% taller, but both are classified as “ultras”, prominent peaks that stand alone and dominate the surrounding landscape.
This isn’t immediately apparent from the Palermo side of the island, where mountains encircle the city and the Madonie range provides a further barrier to the east, but once you venture into the interior it’s surprisingly easy to spot the cone, particularly when the winter’s snows remain on the summit. Consequently I expected to easily exceed Hokusai in capturing different evocations.
Unsurprisingly both of the volcanoes have their places in mythology; Fuji in Shinto legends and Etna in Greek, where Hephaestus, blacksmith to the gods, had a workshop beneath the peak (despite other stories that detail how Zeus imprisoned a monster in the same location) and Polyphemus the cyclops lived on its slopes. Perhaps less well-known is that Etna has another name (Mongibeddu in Sicilian, Mongibello in Italian) which links it to Arthurian legend (Mongibel being home to Morgan le Fay). What was the legendary English King doing in Sicily???? They’ll be carting St George off to Genoa next!
But back to my journey. As I travelled further east, so it became easier to spot the peak, though not so to photograph it since in the towns it would be screened by buildings and in the open spaces in between there were few places to stop along the road.
It’s an impressive sight from wherever you view it, but I think burdening you with 36 views might be a little too much…
When you visit a museum that incorporates items of military history such as Les Invalides in Paris, or less romantically the Royal Armouries in Leeds, then you’re likely to be overwhelmed by the sheer volumes of weaponry and armour on display there, and picture huge forces of well prepared men whose equipment glinted in the morning sunlight on the day of a great battle.
But think about this for a moment.
Many of the “landed gentry” of England were raised in status as thanks for their support in such conflicts, and whereas they may have had the wealth to furnish their men with purpose made armaments once they had achieved some status, when they first committed themselves to one side or another in say the English Civil War, they were probably farmers with a small force of labourers who had no choice but to fall in with their employer or face financial ruin. (Historians please correct me if I’ve got this wrong!)
One such family who lived in North Yorkshire were the Pennymans, and although they bet on the wrong side during the time of Henry VIII by supporting a Catholic protest against the reformation, they were firmly on the side of Royalty in the century that followed. As reward for this, one branch of the family were given the status of Baronet by Charles II and took up residence in Ormesby, which is now part of Middlesbrough.
In the years since then the Baronetcy died out and the estate diminished (the stable block was given over to the horses of Cleveland Police) but members of the Pennyman family continued to live there so consequently the house feels like a family home to a large degree, albeit one with some rather splendid plasterwork.
There is a real surprise in store however, and one of the National Trust’s making rather than the Pennyman’s.
Faced with large unfurnished spaces in what had been servants quarters someone decided that the perfect solution would be to install some model railways. Advertising for donations they were delighted when one of the country’s leading modellers was persuaded by his daughter to donate his entire layout, and so the house contains a miniature England in gentler times when milk was still delivered in churns and before Beeching savaged the rail network.
Model trains were never my thing, but you can’t help but be impressed by the craftsmanship that was put into this recreation over 35 years. It seems there are easier ways of acquiring land than entering into a civil war.
Just a little under two years ago a change of route home from a work assignment took me to Ribblehead and its impressive viaduct (though after Berwick it seemed to have lost some of the ability to astonish). Nevertheless the presence here in the remote reaches of Yorkshire makes it an attractive location for photography. Surely if I timed my visit with the first morning of the year I might find it quiet enough to explore without any risk of stealing someone else’s shot or having mine photobombed?
Of course having already taken refreshment in Richmond I’d lost a little time, and my schedule slipped further when I stopped along the way to deal with the consequences of that pot of tea. Naturally I disguised my activity by focusing a lens up the valley on hearing any approaching engines. All of this prevarication meant that it was nearly lunchtime when I arrived at Ribblehead, and the verges were full of other vehicles.
If I’m honest, the best shots of the viaduct are probably those taken from a distance such as those in my last post, so I wasn’t sure what I would gain from getting closer, but undeterred I joined the stream of walkers making their way across the moorland. Thankfully most of them were intent upon the snowy slopes of Whernside that lay ahead and so I was able to detour off the beaten path and get the structure to myself.
Crossing beneath one of the vast arches I found a path taking me to the level of the railway, in the hope of an interesting shot of parallel rails curving into infinity, but in the end couldn’t get enough height to make this work, and so I looked for somewhere reasonably dry to put down my camera bag and switch lenses with the intent of framing shots differently on my return journey. It was while I was looking around that I noticed a large depression which was almost perfectly circular. Other shapes at odds with the landscape could be seen as I reached the foot of the slope too.
Reading one of the notice boards I learnt that this was more than just a rail crossing. There had been inspection pits and workshops here too, as well as the shanty town where the workers referred to in my last post had lived (and died). A great deal of human activity had been absorbed back into the land, meaning of course that this is a site ripe for some industrial archaeology. Whether that ever happens will of course depend on it being of interest to some university archaeology department, and for the most part they look to more ancient remains. Where are you now Time Team?
In their present state there was nothing to photograph, though perhaps from the air? Or the top of the viaduct? That wasn’t an option as it is still used by trains so I must content myself with the arched bridge for now. It’s not a bad consolation prize.
While I’m reading Christa Meola’s new book The Art of Boudoir Photography, I’m looking for tips and techniques I can put to use in more mundane contexts. Having read about her favourite lens choices yesterday I thought I might try shooting at 50mm all day today, as a focal length that is very similar to human eyesight. Shame I left home without that lens today.
She also writes about how she uses music during a shoot to give “non-models” something to move and emote to, and in the book she gives a link to a playlist that she often uses. I decided to build on this and create my own, and though I’m not sure when I’ll use it, if nothing else it gives some variety in what I listen to on long car journeys.
This morning I was planning just a short journey to Newcastle, and whilst there was a dusting of snow on my car roof, I wasn’t expecting much more when I set off. Within only a mile or two the weather was making its intent clear.
I turned up the heater and the music followed suit. Initially I quite liked my music choices, but Talk Talk didn’t seem to fit. Why had I put that in there? Best delete it later I thought.
All in all less than propitious start to the day.
I was going into town to meet a woman who I met recently through an online dating agency, a relationship I knew that lacked romantic potential but was friendly enough. “Why are you bothering to meet up then?” I was asked.
I was on time for the rendezvous, she was late (delayed by the weather). I could have given up, gone home and written the day off as a failure.
I didn’t though. S arrived without much delay and we had a pleasant time together before going our separate ways much as I would with any other friend. Returning to my car I thought about where I might find some pictures, and how I might best use the lens I had with me. As I did so I passed another cafe, and a much nicer one it seemed (The Garden Kitchen). I spotted one of the staff at work who was continually smiling. Someone clearly happy with their life at this point in time, and an obvious candidate for a picture, a picture that I really like. She was a little embarrassed but flattered that I thought her smile worth capturing. You can judge whether I was right; the shot wasn’t posed, this was how I spotted her.
During our conversation, S had mentioned that she couldn’t get on the car park roof as it was closed due to the volume of snow. I wondered if I was too late as the initial signs suggested that it was already melting.
My effort in climbing the extra flights of stairs was repaid by the white rooftops of the city. Another image worth capturing, but I still didn’t feel I had enough so as I was leaving town, I took a detour, parked at a roadside where the lines indicating that I shouldn’t be there were well carpeted in snow, and found a little alleyway to shelter in as I waited.
I wanted a shot of someone in a hood.
Hoods create nice shadows around the face and played a big part in two of my favourite pictures from last year. Shouldn’t be difficult in this snow I thought, and I was right there were quite a few about… on the opposite side of the road and out range for me without risking a fall as I ran to intercept them.
Instead as another couple ran hoodless across in my direction I watched as the man temporarily lost his balance and reflexively I took the shot. Not quite dramatic enough to be worth keeping I thought, but then he approached me, asked to see the picture and gave me his card, requesting I email it to him. Normally the way these things work is that I give other people my card when I’ve taken their portrait to reassure them about my blog!
Lots of umbrellas, beany hats and wet heads came and went, but no hoods, until I spotted a flash of pink from a small suitcase being carried by a figure in a parka who was crossing towards me. A parka with a fur-trimmed hood. I couldn’t see any face, for she had her head down against the weather, but I knew this was going to be my chance. I stopped her to ask for a portrait, explained that she met my exacting standards perfectly (well she had a hood on!) and she agreed, although noted that she’d never been asked for a picture in the street before. I can’t imagine why, for as she flashed a smile and tilted her eyes to the light she made a great job of this one. And yes, I remembered to ask her name. Thanks Anita!
The last week has seen me making a few journeys cross-country, where I’ve been based in Aintree on Merseyside. Of course I packed my camera, in the hope that I might have the opportunity to make a short detour to Crosby beach and find a new angle on Another Place, the collection (100 in all) of Antony Gormley sculptures which are installed along the shore here. Art and a beach? Seemed like a perfect combination for me.
Unfortunately a different combination of working hours and daylight hours proved incompatible, so that the only occasions where I had time on my hands were when it was pitch black. A speedlite might have illuminated one of the statues, and with a camera on a tripod and a long exposure I might have caught some ambient light in the sky, but I hear that the beach there is particularly muddy, so the tripod would probably have sunk as I did so. Another Place will have to wait for another time.
I still came away with some imagery from the trip though. Only a couple of evenings before a friend had promised me a picture of the willow tree in the grounds of the school where she works so long as it remained snowy until the Monday. (I’m assuming it didn’t JJ!). However on my way over the Pennines I spotted a specimen of my own just outside Kirkby Stephen. There was nothing additional in the vicinity which would make the picture, but it’s an impressive specimen anyway. It did however have the effect that having stopped to get the camera and tripod out, I was inclined to look for inspiration elsewhere. I had an inkling of where I would find it too.
The train station at Kirkby Stephen is located on the highly evocative Settle to Carlisle line, and is some way out-of-town on the road up to Ash Fell. I parked here and went exploring.
Apart from the newly constructed waiting room on one platform the place looks like it has remained unchanged for years, so I shot some interesting compositions, but again I felt I lacked a point of interest. Where was Jenny Agutter and her red knickers when I needed her?
The light was fading quickly now so I returned to my car and continued uphill when I found my point of interest. Not sure what the point of this structure by the roadside was, but it brings a whole new meaning to shoe tree!