Ritual of the Wave Worshipper

Dropping my daughter at work this morning I stopped to check out the shoreline and was surprised to find two juxtaposed constructions. 

The shamanistic origins of the carefully placed cairn of coloured stones were clear, but what was the significance of the structure nearby; an upturned shopping trolley with adjoining bread basket?  Had the trolley been used as some sort of visual guide, placed in preparation for the forthcoming summer solstice.  Would the sun arise between its wheels on the morning of June 20th?

Did the dark figure in the distance have some part to play?  I zoomed in to see him running to sea with a portable altar under his arm.

At the water’s edge he paused to beckon the waves to hear his enchantments.

He then kissed dry land to ensure a safe return from his journey over the racing waters.

And then he seemed to break his back to give himself an excuse not to bother!

Joking aside, like any serious athlete, Mark was doing some stretching to reduce the risk of injury and as you can see he’s a pretty normal guy really.

Still doesn’t explain the shopping trolley though…

After the boys of summer have gone…

Don Henley – The Boys Of Summer

Nobody on the road,

Nobody on the beach,

I feel it in the air,

The summer’s out of reach.

The strong NNE winds bringing cold air and wind chill were enough reason to keep people in today, so I’m going to let the pictures do the talking.  If you’ve seen some of my kite surfing shots in the last week, you might have spotted one man who loves taking to the air, and this morning I was lucky to catch him before he entered the water.

This was the third time I’d spotted him in the last few days, and he explained to me that the kite surfers have been waiting six months for conditions like these.  His name is Russell and he shared with me his secret weapon – the thick neoprene gloves that  keep his hands warm are fine for the control bar that steers his power source but would presumably be too thick to hold the larger boom used to steer when windsurfing.

Thanks Russell for providing me with some great opportunities this week.


Melting Pot*

After a week of rain, a short burst of sunshine.  Long enough to start pumping out flooded subways, but more importantly it increases the flow of human traffic too, because I needed someone special to write about today.

I could have played with the surfer folk (love the water running of this woman’s board – click to enlarge if you want a look), or joined the dog-walker fraternity to keep their pooches intrigued, but today that just wouldn’t do.  I needed to press on and find someone with powers.  Not as in Chronicle or Avengers Assemble, but as in a radio programme that I found interesting this week.

The programme, Word of Mouth, is hosted by Michael Rosen, and this week he was meeting some interesting families, but it was the last five or six minutes that really caught my attention, given that I have an interest in language.  He was speaking to a husband and wife, parents of three young girls, he is German and she Algerian but both currently live in the UK.  Jan is naturally fluent in German, and his wife (whose name I couldn’t make out in the programme) speaks a colloquial mix of French and Arabic.  Her parents spoke Berber as well as Arabic and she regrets the loss of any Berber that she might once have had.  Her husband is as protective about his German.

Consequently this fascinating couple speak French to each other (they originally met in France) and their native languages to their children, the eldest of whom is just beginning school.  Both of the parents are fluent English speakers, and of course their children are growing up speaking English to their friends.  Indeed Jan describes his daughters as English, which he sees as an inescapable effect of the environment they grow up in.

Why then do his parents continue to use their other languages?  Surely it would be easiest for all to converse in English as a language that have they have in common.  Jan puts it this way – for him to speak English is “wrong”, not through any dislike or prejudice against the language, but because he feels that he is being someone else when not speaking his “own” language, in German he is himself.

This idea of your identity being rooted in the language you speak is an interesting one and is another angle on the debate about whether immigrants to this country should be able to speak English, and undermines racist arguments about the colour our your skin being a deciding factor.  Fascinating stuff, but way too deep to be resolved in a few hundred words of blogging!

For me though, the most fascinating aspect of all of this was the young girls and their ability to converse at will in four languages without giving it much thought.  What remarkable futures are in store for them?

It felt appropriate today therefore to find a subject who was multi-lingual, and almost as soon as I got out of my car today I saw Nehir approaching.  She was kind enough to be photographed, despite the wind whipping at her hair, and cautious enough to see my business card first, but more importantly she is multi-lingual, having parents of West Indian and Turkish origins.  She sees English as her “mother tongue” but is fluent in Turkish too – I wonder if she feels she is English then, or Turkish, or West Indian?

*Melting Pot was a huge hit for Blue Mink when I was a young schoolboy.  I loved the song without giving much thought to its meaning, but perhaps it was more portentous than I gave it credit for.

Thereby hangs a tale…

On my way home from Darlington today I had nearly reached my destination when I spotted a flash of green in the skies to my right.  A quick glance confirmed it was a power kite, and there were others hovering over the shoreline.

My leather shoes were never made for coastal photography so I continued on my way and soon my thoughts turned to lunch, and shortly after that I began to wade through the day’s emails.

About an hour later I noticed that the sky was darkening, so thought I’d better get out and find a portraiture subject before the rain came.  As I approached the sea front I saw the huge billowing sails of the power kiters once again, which was a stroke of luck as it had already begun to rain and more sensible folk were seeking shelter.

Jogging down the beach, the otherwise deserted sands were littered with the debris of water sports; a lonely kite, presumably staked down, rattled its trailing edges against the wind, a number of small surf boards dotted the waterline, and languishing amidst them all was a complete windsurfing board.  Their owners were presumably the five brave souls at sea, heaving against the reins of their airborne steeds.

One soon came ashore, which is how I met Rusty who explained that he would like to see any decent shots that I got, so we exchanged details.  Foolishly I didn’t shoot a head and shoulders of him at the time, but here’s a more candid shot.

The combination of fading light, the need for fast shutter speeds to capture action, and an extended zoom lens meant that I was shooting at a high ISO, never great for detail but in these conditions the compromise was essential.  The resulting images have a lot of “noise”, but I’d rather that than not have them at all.  Moments like this don’t come along too often (sorry Rusty, it isn’t you!).Rusty told me that he and his fellow surfers (who included his father) had been there for three and half hours!  I could understand the enthusiasm given the adrenalin boosting conditions, but I noticed that he and the others weren’t wearing gloves.  I’d been there only ten or fifteen minutes and could feel my hands chilling against the focus ring of my telephoto lens so this seemed like madness!

As if to make a point the rain stepped up a gear, bordering on sleet, so I ran back to terra firma to shelter both me and my equipment, pausing only to grab another, wider shot before I left.  Looks like the guys had decided enough was enough too  I really like this one (though the noisiness may have encouraged me to over work it) – it looks like some alien scouting party coming ashore as a prelude to a greater invasion.

Shame I didn’t get a better one of Rusty in action.  Wonder if he knows the guy who was in my last favourite surfer shot?

Keeping a weather eye open

When I returned home from my beach expedition this morning, I decided it was time for one of those most English of activities; cutting the grass.

I changed into something suitably windproof and was in the process of filling my lawnmower with petrol when Gill opened the door to our garage to tell me: “I wouldn’t bother – it’s chucking it down!”  Sure enough the blue skies had gone and it wasn’t just rain that was falling but sleet, and at such a pace that even if it stopped, the ground was going to be too wet and soft for the lawnmower today.

Deciding it was time to process the morning’s pictures, I sat down with my laptop, aware of the already brightening skies, when I was surprised to hear the blast of the Souter foghorn!  Four seasons in one day?  Very nearly for whilst I was greeted by beautiful sunshine and cloudless skies when I rose this morning, there was a light dusting of snow to be seen on my garage roof, so I dressed for the cold and was right to do so.

My greater concern as a photographer though was those bright skies which to me are a nightmare.  They give bright highlights and deep harsh shadow, which the camera sensor cannot cope with.  OK if you want to shoot something with really high key effect like this, or to frame a silhouette against a brighter background, but to shoot a portrait you can do with a softer light.  Soft light lessens the imperfections of the skin (something I’m not to worried about with male subjects, who benefit from a more rugged look), but more importantly our eyes can cope with it without squinting.

Look at the picture I shot of Yaman yesterday.  His eyes are almost lost even though I turned him at 90 degrees to the sunlight, whereas this little guy seemed to have no problem at all!

So how do professional fashion photographers cope when shooting in exotic locations?  They want to evoke the sun-kissed shores and azure seas, but don’t want their highly paid modelling talent to be wincing at the brightness.  The answer is that they use scrims; large panels of translucent material that have the effect of diffusing the harsh light, reducing the brightness on the subject without losing it in the rest of the scene.  The perfect solution but for the fact that you need:

  • An assistant to hold the diffuser at the right angle and distance from the model, or
  • A large stand that can hold the panel in place with weights or sandbags to keep it steady.

Not really an option for me when shooting casual portraits as I carry neither stand nor assistant when out and about, and I dare say that my usual negotiation to photograph a stranger would become more challenging if waving a large white panel to make them even more self conscious.

So when I met Andy on the shoreline this morning, the best that I could do was to shoot him with his back to the light (still not enough to avoid the squinting with all that light bouncing off the silica at our feet) and then adjust the exposure so that the background “blew out” to white and he was properly exposed.  Not a bad outcome, but you lose any opportunity to sculpt the face unless you have a reflector (another impracticality in these circumstances)

When I met Geoff, he was partly shaded by the building he was standing alongside, and was staring into the light though sunglasses.  Easy to shoot, but the eyes, which play such an important role in the expression of an individual are lost behind the glass and plastic.  He had good reason to be looking out to sea though.  As a surfer he was assessing the conditions before getting changed and unpacking his board.  Wise move, for the waves were unspectacular except where the wind was smacking them against the pier.  Not somewhere you would want to be with your board.

As I returned to my car I saw that not everyone had Geoff’s prescience.

Surf’s up, temperature’s down.

After two days of leaden, rain-filled skies, the sun was shining this morning and bringing with it the prospect of more people out and about to photograph, and of course with them being British, many of them were inappropriately dressed.

We’re clearly so unused to a ray of sunshine that when we see one we automatically assume that it is the height of summer, and that it will feel tropical outside.  So it was this morning as I drove along the Roker coastline; a man and his wife wearing T-shirts and shorts.  I checked the temperature reading on my dashboard; sure enough, single figures. A few yards further I spotted my wife Gill out on her morning walk and she had removed her waterproof, leaving long layers of black lycra and insulation beneath.  A few yards later and as she turned to face into the north wind, the waterproof was back on to give added protection.  Far more sensible.

Even given our national tendency to get it wrong I was surprised by the sight that greeted me when I stopped to take pictures a little later.  What little trace of sun there had been was gone now, and as I walked down the beach in my fleece, I exchanged greetings with an older man in heavy coat and scarf.  “Nasty nip in that wind this morning” he commented, and I agreed.  Not very surprising, but as we conversed there were a couple of grandparents behind me who had changed two small girls into pink flowery swimming costumes and were ushering them to go an paddle in the sea!  What’s more while the girls were running about to keep warm, both adults, who were already dressed in thick anoraks wrapped a blanket around themselves to keep warm.

Was this some fiendish means of punishment on a par with being locked in “The Chokey” by Miss Trunchbull, or are these girls being hardened in anticipation of some polar expedition in later life?  There seems no kinder explanation.  Wonder what their parents think they’re up to?

Luckily other guardians were more cognizant of the conditions and wrapped their children as well as they did themselves. 

There were even some younger surfers of both sexes out amongst the waves today, but sensibly swathed in plenty of neoprene.  I watched them for a while looking for some moody shot rather than the usual action, and once I had it I returned to the roadside, where amongst the flotilla of camper vans and similar vehicles that are a sure sign of good surfing, I met Drew.  Bemused as he was to be asked for a picture he agreed.

Happy surfing dude, even if it isn’t quite the weather for Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys  to break out the Hawaiian shirts.