The Very Visible Lighthouse

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View from the Black Beacon to Orfordness Light

A couple of years ago my daughter Holly and I attended an unusual screening at Tyneside Cinema in which a film director was premiering his latest (and only) film.

The evening was in three parts. Firstly the film was shown, though soundtrack and narration were performed live from a spot to the left of the screen, then a leather armchair was manoeuvred to centre stage for the director to answer questions. Finally he returned to his console, strapped on a small keyboard and performed a short set of his greatest hits.

Thomas Dolby, Boulder Colorado 2006
Thomas Dolby, Boulder Colorado 2006 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The director/writer/performer was Thomas Dolby, and the film was The Invisible Lighthouse, a tale of the role that this landscape had played in his childhood, replete with war heroes, UFO’s, an undercover operation, and in particular the Orfordness Light which was being decommissioned due to the increasing risk of it being swept away like so much of that coastline had before. Whilst the building itself was being left to the forces of time and tide, the light and ancillary equipment was to be removed because of the toxic impact it might have on the environment. Orford Ness is a nature reserve._MG_2615

So here we are a couple of years later and that encroaching sea has yet to deal the fatal blow. The lighthouse is clearly visible from many directions, largely due to the otherwise unused land that surrounds it. There are reasons that so much of that land is unused and I will explore them in the next posting about the Ness but for now lets concentrate on the light.

Dolby’s tribute wasn’t the only expression of sadness at the passing of a local landmark (there has been a lighthouse here since 1792). An association was formed to look into ways to temporarily defend the structure from the sea until more detailed plans for its preservation could be agreed.

They needed to act swiftly as it was only expected to survive a further 6 or 7 years after decommissioning in 2013. An article in the Daily Telegraph in January 2013 pointed out that the tower was only 11 metres from the sea, and that four metres had been lost in the previous month alone.

18 months later and the building still stands.

So far so good.

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The Beauty of a Dream

all of the buildings, all of those cars
were once just a dream
in somebody’s head

dreaming of mercy st.
wear your inside out
dreaming of mercy

Peter Gabriel – Mercy Street (link to Iain Matthews cover)

In my frequent work trips to Bootle, Widnes and now Warrington, I feel I make more than my fair contribution to the 35 million journeys that take place annually along this stretch of the M62.  As I do so I often muse about the large luminous visage that peers down upon the traffic speeding past here on Merseyside and I’ve dreamt of the photographic opportunities that it presents.

Imagine my disbelief then, when having arrived for my first night in Warrington, I read a post from my fellow blogger Debra who posted her image of the sculpture on Vladography this week.

Expressing that disbelief to her she of course pointed out to me that there are many other angles on the subject, and so on finishing my work the following afternoon I determined to waste no more timing in unleashing my Canon upon the artwork. remarkably as I started my car, a drama called North of Riga on Radio 4 was telling the story of a mysterious stranger called the King of Winter who cuts a girl’s hair to steal her dreams.

Intentionally or not, Eoin McNamee‘s character, with his long black hair, immediately brought to mind the protagonist of Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman series.  This character Morpheus, is also known as Dream; a name shared by the tall, white voyeur atop the hill in St Helens.

Jaume Plensa‘s Dream is the North West’s answer to the Angel of North, and is equal in height, though to my mind less impressive when viewed from the roadside.  I’ve always seen the elongated head as androgynous from this aspect, but when you make the effort to climb that hill and meet her face to face she has just as much impact as her rusty cousin, in fact I found her slender beauty completely captivating.   Like the Angel, she stands on a site that was once better known for the dirty and deadly industry of mining, the faces of the men who worked here a stark contrast with the self-cleaning white concrete of the disembodied head.  Her pallor reminds me of the “engineers” of Ridley Scott‘s Prometheus, a film in which an arrogant and jealous android “reads” the dreams of a woman who is in stasis for an interstellar journey. (The film also features a large disembodied head; both in reality and as a statue!) Our fascination with dreams will continue long into the future it seems.  Funny things dreams.

Dream
Dream

 

The beauty of a dream is you don’t let it go,
You don’t ever let it go.

Once in a while a girl comes along
And opens your heart like a spam tin
Just how long can it take?
A bow bends, a bow breaks
And then when it’s time to return the key
She’ll flash you a smile as she slams the door
But you didn’t have to do that to me
To show me just how cruel love could be
And cruel’s a show I kinda starred in before.

Thomas Dolby – Beauty Of A Dream

Dream
Dream
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Putting On Extra Layers

My first encounter with a camera obscura was in 1972.

I, like many others of my age, was addicted to a children’s TV drama that ran throughout that summer called, appropriately enough, The Long Chase.  Time seems to pass more slowly in the halcyon days of youth, and so a serial comprising 13 weekly episodes was mammoth.  (Good training for the exploits of Sarah Lund 40 years later though.)  The protagonist was a young boy who stumbles onto some sort of conspiracy involving his father that leads to a VIP being assassinated during the Edinburgh festival, a crime witnessed using the nearby Camera Obscura on the Royal Mile.

I was reminded of this when watching the trailer for the documentary film Tim’s Vermeer, in which an inventor names Tim Jenison postulates that the incredible skill of Johannes Vermeer may owe something to his having used a camera obscura to obtain his indubitably lifelike results.  I haven’t seen the full film (though my appetite has been whetted) but Jenison, who is not an artist, recreates one of Vermeer’s masterpieces with great precision, which perhaps gives credence to his theory, but then, so what?  The film is directed and narrated by the illusionists Penn & Teller, artists whose work relies heavily on the use of unseen technology that enables the production of a particular vision.  The entertainment is in the amazing results, and for nerds like me, trying to guess how it was achieved.

So if Vermeer used a tool does it matter?  We may possibly consider him less of a genius, but does it make a painting like Girl with a Pearl Earring any less stunning?  The destination is more important than the journey when it comes to art it seems.

Some years after the conclusion of The Long Chase, I read an interview with another hero of mine, Brian Eno, in which he described his approach to music recording as similar to painting.  (As a visual artist as well as a musician he is entitled to do so).  Using multi-track recording (this was in the days where tape constrained you to 64 tracks or less) he applied and removed layers of sound until he achieved the result he desired.  As one with no skill with paint and brush I wondered how true this was in painting terms.

Musically I soon learned as the introduction of portable recording machines like the Portastudio opened the doors for anyone who wanted to record their own music, though the world failed to recognise the genius of my early masterpiece Culloden haha!  Nevertheless the techniques remain valid.

On the song 17 Hills, a typical Dolbian tale of tragic lovers on the run, as Thomas introduces the romantic interest by singing

Flaming hair and her name was Irene
The prettiest thief you ever seen

the lady is personified by the appearance of Mark Knopfler‘s guitar, playing some of the best breaks and licks I’ve heard him produce.  I was very pleasantly surprised having developed a strong dislike of his sound as a result of overexposure in the 1980’s.  My renewed admiration took a bit of a knock when I happened upon this video from Mr Dolby explaining how he got the best from Knopfler during the recording session – 

So has the revelation in the video made me like the song any less?  Not in the least.  Maybe some of the admiration has shifted from the guitarist to the geek, but I still love the finished article.

My point in all of this?  There are lots of photographers who are very snooty about the ability to get the shot “in camera” with little post processing required.  I don’t have that skill, but I often know what I’m trying to get from the image I’m pointing my camera at – it just takes a bit of effort building up the layers in photoshop later.

Thanks to my flaming haired friend who suggested we visit Sycamore Gap on Hadrian’s Wall today and supplied the delicious curried parsnip soup that ended the walk.  Here are some before and after comparisons of what the layers did for me, and a screen grab of my photoshop settings for the final image.

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I’m no Vermeer, Eno or Dolby, but it will do for 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

Expression & Gesture

I was going to call this body language, a title perhaps more suited to last weekend’s imagery, but as someone whose work often focuses on communication and relationships the topic of non-verbal communication is never far away, and of course as I’ve dated a number of women in the last year I’ve had one eye to any indication of building rapport, or perhaps the lack of.  Indeed the two have often combined as I’ve recounted the tale of how I recognised a connection with my friend J almost immediately due to the potency of the mirrored expressions, posture and gestures on our first date even though we could not progress beyond friendship.

The topic has been on my mind again this week, partly because I couldn’t help but notice a fair degree of matching when I met P for the first time on Thursday, but more importantly because I wanted to talk to a board of directors on Friday about how they can use it to their advantage.

When talking about body language we very often do so in terms of its impact from one person to another, how we respond to the gestures, expressions, postures of those around us, and vice versa, but I watched a fascinating video this week on the TED website, part of which I shared with my clients on Friday morning.  Amy Cuddy, a Professor at Harvard Business School, describes how they have proved that our body language produces physical changes that affect our own performance.  People who adopt what are termed “high power” postures produce different hormones and even a period as short as two minutes doing so can create these physical changes, but also go on to enable the “poser” to perform better in scenarios such as a job interview or presentation.

Which is how I found myself in a room with 15 executives, all giving it their best Wonder Woman pose.

Browsing TED later I found a live performance by Eddi Reader, one of the artists that P and I had discussed on our date so had to stop for a closer look.  To be fair this live performance of her reminiscence about a lost love isn’t on a par with her recording of the same song or her beautiful contribution to Thomas Dolby‘s Oceanea, but as I read the comments left by others who had watched her TED performance I was struck by how many felt they had to comment on her hand gestures rather than her vocal performance.  Oceana’s melody and lyrics reflecting my own yearning for the sea can fill me with emotion, and P has felt the same about other Reader recordings, so if people are distracted by her hands then it only serves to underline how significant body language is in our communication.

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Today’s imagery was shot at the Durham Christmas Festival, where with markets, food, musicians, and craft stalls aplenty there were crowds beyond the numbers that the ancient infrastructure was ever designed for, but for me plenty of opportunity to shoot expression and gesture; especially when entertainment was provided Nat Lunatrick.

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Return to Mulberry*

APW_0141_2_3-EditDown the beaches
Hand in hand
Twelfth of never
On the sand
Then war took her away

Europa and The Pirate Twins 

I must apologise for bringing Thomas Dolby back to these pages with such indecent haste, but his showing/performance of The Invisible Lighthouse at the Tyneside Cinema resonated so strongly that I could not resist.

English: Orford Ness Lighthouse
English: Orford Ness Lighthouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The film is a blend of autobiography (though whether the subject is Dolby or his beloved Suffolk coastline is a moot point) and documentary exploring the decommissioning of the lighthouse that illuminated his childhood bedroom.  In doing so he also explored the fragility and validity of human memory; his own recollection of a catastrophic Aldeburgh conflagration, being slightly undermined by his mother’s observation that he was in another county when it occurred!  He began to question how powerful the light had been since to his adult eye it seemed week and insignificant, though thanks to a 50-year-old copy of the Guinness Book of Records he was able to establish that the light had once been the brightest in the world.

His love of the North Sea coastline with its tidal erosion, wartime defences, UFO sightings  and piercing lighthouse beams may be romanticised but has long formed part of the mythology of his oeuvre.

APW_0180_1_2-EditPerhaps this partly explained the appeal that his songs hold for me. This is after all the same grey sea that I have looked on for years, facing the same invaders, ravaged by similar natural forces, and protected by red and white monolithic guardians. The beam of Souter Lighthouse was as potent in the mind’s eye of my youth as Orford Ness was in his, and indeed it also held the title of world’s brightest at some point in its history.  Souter has not troubled the night sky for 25 years and even its foghorn gave its last blast earlier this year.

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I asked him how he might change the experience when he takes the film on tour in the US, for this seemed an essentially English experience. His response was that other than the addition of a second performer providing live foley (sound effects) he didn’t intend to change it at all, explaining that whilst the loss of the lighthouse was a real source of nostalgia for those neighbouring the North Sea, when taken further afield it becomes a metaphor for any significant artefact facing obsolescence, and therefore capable of generating a similar emotional response.

For me there was no need of metaphor for though the topography of the South Tyneside coast is very different to that of Suffolk, Souter may well face the same fate.  The Leas car park, one of a pair used by visitors to lighthouse (which like Orford Ness is managed by the National Trust), closed several months ago following a cliff fall, and it will never re-open.  It is currently being reclaimed by nature, as it awaits it’s sudden and inevitable descent to the shore.APW_0137

The power of the sea is clear, the coast is scattered with limestone stacks and sea-washed caves.

So what would you mourn if its loss was imminent?

When I was small
I was in love, in love with everything
But now there’s only you

*Cloudburst at Shingle Street

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Aliens Ate My Buick

Donald Fagen's Kamakiriad anyone?
Donald Fagen’s Kamakiriad anyone?

Wasn’t sure there was going to be a blog this weekend.

I’ve been an admirer of Thomas Dolby for many years; as a former keyboard player I was powerless to resist the appeal of his gadgetry.  He is the ultimate geek muso, which of course is why he was in so much demand as a session musician in the 80’s, and indeed the royalties he earned from the sumptuous synthesiser intro to Foreigner’s Waiting For a Girl Like You provided Dolby with the resources to begin his solo recording career.

Astronauts & Heretics
Astronauts & Heretics (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Those unfamiliar with his albums may associate him with quirky dance numbers such as She Blinded Me With Science or Hyperactive but there is a far more sensitive side to his output too; and his fourth album Astronauts and Heretics  has some great examples.  True he is no Joni Mitchell (though he did co-produce her album Dog Eat Dog) but songs like I Love You Goodbye still have a poignancy to them.

After a spell away from recording during which time he established a technology company that put ringtones into most of the planet’s mobile phones, he has in the last few years returned to the UK and rediscovered his creativity, though in a typically Dolby steampunk way, creating a renewable energy powered recording studio in a converted 1930’s lifeboat at the bottom of his garden!

Thomas Dolby
Thomas Dolby (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He has been in the news recently for two reasons; one the death of Ray Dolby, the noise reduction system pioneer led to a few media interviews with the man who borrowed his name, and secondly because he is about to embark on tour with a very different project; The Invisible Lighthouse which is touring not concert halls, but art house cinemas.  The tour features a film made by Dolby about the lighthouse that he watched from his bedroom window as a child, its mysterious location on a military testing range, and it’s eventual decommissioning.  What makes it different is that the film is accompanied by live narration and soundtrack performance by Dolby who interacts with his work on-screen.  Should be fascinating when it gets to Newcastle in a week or so.

With many ear worms in his repertoire (at least as far as my ears are concerned) it was inevitable that one or two would get stuck in my head this week; the aforementioned I Love You Goodbye amongst them, but it was the lazy melancholia of To the Lifeboats that eventually took hold.

The superstitious sailors of old
Refused to learn to swim
But there’s no need to drown these days
Cause we’ve got lifeboats.
Where are the lifeboats?
There are no lifeboats.
There are no fucking lifeboats…

And so it proved, for when I went to South Shields to photograph the grade II listed vessel responsible for saving over 1000 lives during its sixty years of service it (The Tyne) was gone.

Sent for restoration.

I was left with a void.

Now I don’t actually own Dolby’s third album, but I had a stroke of luck when this vehicle turned it up.  Dolby describes Aliens Ate My Buick as being too brash for many of his fan’s tastes.  Hmmmmmm.

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