The black line behind the tree shows where the weir is situated
Still on the quest for lovely places to walk in this area, we went to the RSPB nature reserve near Collingham. It’s certainly nicer than most of the walks I’ve tried so far, and part of it takes you alongside Cromwell Weir – the point at which the tidal part of the River Trent meets the non-tidal part.
Weirs are quite scary things, and this one is no exception. In fact, on the other side of the river next to the lock, there is a memorial to ten soldiers who died when their craft was swept over this weir during a night-time exercise. The sheer power of the water is frightening, and we watched some flotsam being rhythmically swept under and then bobbing up again, trapped in the circular motion of the water. In another area the water formed a small whirlpool, with the central portion being a foot or two lower than the rest of the water. Despite many attempts, I couldn’t get an image that clearly showed this, but you can get an impression of the violent churning of the water in the picture second from last, below.
Water has always fascinated me in all its various forms, but it’s the sheer power of something so innately formless that takes my breath away. It always amazes me how something that can be as soft and gentle as mist, can also turn into something overwhelmingly powerful when it gains volume and speed.
I so wanted to see the poppy installation when it was at the Tower of London, but never managed to get there. A part of it, though – the Wave – is now at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and we made a visit there last week. It’s small in comparison – around 5,000 poppies compared to 888,246 at the Tower – but still impressive. The poppies pour down from a small stone bridge, spilling into the water at the bottom, and the setting works well.
Unfortunately it was a dull grey day with uninteresting light, plus a lot of other people on site, so getting decent photos of it wasn’t easy. To be honest, I felt a little bit flat on seeing it. From a distance it looked fantastic – a flow of bright red in the greyish landscape- but close up it lacked something. The coach parties of visitors didn’t help – I would have liked to spend time with it alone, tuning in to its real meaning. I took some photos nonetheless, and quite like some of the close-up details.
I think perhaps the poppies paled into insignificance for me after viewing the Bill Viola exhibition first (also on at the YSP). Bill Viola is a video artist – or as he prefers it, an artist who happens to use video. Now, I usually find video art very unappealing, but there are a few exceptions – Tacita Dean’s installation in the Tate Turbine Hall, for example, and something I once saw in an art gallery in Reykjavik although I can’t remember what it was. Even then, they don’t touch my soul in the way that a lot of other art does. Bill Viola, though, is my new art crush.
I can only tell you about it here, because although there are plenty of videos on Youtube showing his major works, they’re badly-recorded phone camera jobs that aren’t even a pale imitation of seeing the real thing and would probably make you think he’s not worth bothering about. A lot of this is because Viola’s films are exceptionally and beautifully sharp and detailed, and shown very, very big. Much of their impact lies in the clear, sharp, detail, coupled with the extreme slowing down of the ‘action’ which is his trademark.
I first came across Viola years ago, when I was taken along to what I think was his Quintet Series 2000 exhibition. I wasn’t as into art then as I am now, and I didn’t have much understanding of it either, but I knew quality when I saw it. However, I found this work quite hard to take as it involved huge close-up videos of five actor’s faces in exquisite – and sometimes excruciating – slow motion as they experienced a variety of mostly negative emotions. I often feel very uncomfortable looking at faces this closely, and I found it difficult to watch the minute nuances of anguish on someone’s face over a period of what felt like hours, although it was actually minutes. It was very, very good, but I simply couldn’t watch it for long.
However, much of Viola’s work is centred around water and fire, and these were the pieces that did it for me at the YSP. Two of them were created to act as backdrops for a production of the opera Tristan and Isolde. One of these, Ascension, starts with a pale, draped figure lying prone on a white plinth. Gently at first, a column of water begins to pour upwards from the figure, getting ‘heavier’ and ‘heavier’, till there are water drops bouncing off the plinth and waves developing in the water around it. Then slowly the figure begins to ascend towards the source of the deluge, finally disappearing, and the water slowly decreases again till it’s nothing more than mist. Its accompanying film, Fire Woman, begins with the silhouette of a woman against a huge wall of flame. Eventually she begins to move, slowly, until she dives into a pool of water in front of her and the water splash rises up in front of the flames, to fall back into the fire-reflecting ripples of the water. Both videos had soundtracks, of the pouring water or the crackling fire, and were shown several times larger than lifesize. Everything happens in slow motion, and is meditative, stunningly beautiful, and awe-inspiring.
There were many more of Viola’s works to see, all of them quite amazing and many of them somewhat more complex than the two I’ve described. The whole point about them, though, is that like the best art they manage to express ideas and feelings that can’t be put into words, and so to attempt to describe them rather misses the point. There’s a meditative quality to all his work that draws you into it and won’t let go, and it’s difficult to get across something so intangible. All I can say is, if you’re in the vicinity, go and see it!
Resources: I eventually found a half decent video of Fire Woman on Vimeo. Just bear in mind, if you watch it, that when shown as intended the screen is twice as high as an average interior wall and a small video loses most of the impact, as you can’t see the subtle detail. The woman doesn’t begin to move until three minutes in, and doesn’t dive until nearly four minutes in, but this doesn’t matter when you see it really big – it’s enthralling enough to hold you even though not much is happening.
What haunts us is often the shadow side, the dark side, of our selves. It appears to us like these figures – dark, faceless, ominous. Jung believed that we needed to make friends with these shadow selves in order to become whole, and that once faced, they no longer had the power to haunt or frighten us. More than that, he believed that this shadow self held treasures for us to discover. If you dare to look into these sculptures in Beverley Minster, you’ll see they contain ‘hearts’, made out of beautifully coloured glass fragments.
For the photographers
Beverley Minster is one of the only cathedrals I’ve been to where they charge you for permission to photograph even if it’s only for personal use. I felt a bit annoyed by this and wasn’t going to bother initially, but got excited enough when I saw these sculptures (by Helen Whittaker) to walk back up the length of the cathedral to buy a permit. Because I was excited, I started snapping away without even thinking about settings and the first shots came out over-exposed and blurred. However, once I’d calmed down enough to set the camera properly, I found that the straight shots didn’t really work and lacked atmosphere. I went back to deliberately hand-holding during a long exposure and, after a bit of processing, ended up with the image above. For me it captures the feeling I wanted far better than the ‘correct’ settings ever would have done. Serendipity is a wonderful thing.
The conditions that favour poppy seeds are simple – the seeds lie dormant, deep in the soil, until something comes along to plough and break that soil up, allowing sunshine, warmth and moisture to reach them so that they spring into vibrant, astonishing life.
Their overwhelming association with the trenches of WW1 is because, in land that had been ripped apart by shells and fighting, they were the first sign of life to reappear. It must have been a poignant sight – the blood of the fallen springing up as dancing red flowers. The poppies symbolised both the huge loss of life and shedding of blood, but also the triumph of life over death, of beauty over man-made devastation.
I wish the link with war wasn’t so strong. The poppy is the most joyful of flowers – to come across fields like the ones in these images is something that lifts the heart. But then – for me, at least – the symbolism kicks in and it’s impossible not to think of Flanders fields, in the same way that I can no longer see a plane flying towards some skyscrapers without thinking of 9/11.
However, these poppies were busily creating their own little pocket of joy – the small layby next to the fields housed an ever-changing parade of cars whose occupants had stopped to gaze in awe at the poppies stretching into the distance, and more often than not, to get out and take pictures. Everyone was smiling at everyone else, and exclaiming how wonderful and amazing it was. These poppies were bringing people together.
I searched the web for quotes about poppies that didn’t refer to war. It’s almost impossible to find any, so this one stood out:
‘That we find a crystal or a poppy beautiful means that we are less alone, that we are more deeply inserted into existence than the course of a single life would lead us to believe.’
The quote is from John Berger who – coincidentally – wrote extensively about the theory of photography. I do believe that there’s something about nature’s spectacular beauty that connects us more strongly to the world, puts our problems into perspective, and opens our hearts to the simple pleasures that lie in looking at something as gorgeous as this.
A short post this time, as I’m away for a couple of days this week. Newark has just opened a new Civil War Museum and there were all sorts of shenanigans going on this weekend involving re-enactments of the various battles and sieges. This is very much not my usual thing, but it’s good to try something new and I wanted to see what I could do with it.
By sheer chance, we ended up in exactly the right spot to see everything – we couldn’t have chosen it better had we known where the thrust of the action would be. It was tremendously noisy, with cannons and muskets firing right, left and centre – so noisy that I missed my first few shots because the sudden bangs made me jump just as I pressed the shutter, and my ears were still ringing when we got home afterwards.
The shot I most wanted to get, but failed to, was to catch the flames and smoke that billowed out of the castle window when they fired the cannon stationed there. I caught the smoke well enough, but not the flame. I think it was probably impossible – there was no indication of when they were going to fire the cannon and by the time you saw the fiery bit even the quickest shutter finger was going to be too late.
As always, I was drawn to moving in close rather than taking the bigger view. I liked the repeating lines of the guns in this shot.
I looked for slightly quirky shots rather than the obvious ones. I’m pretty happy with these – it’s not the sort of thing I particularly enjoy shooting but I did get quite into it once I got going, and it’s good to stretch yourself now and again. Normal service will resume with my next post!
Back to Newark Cemetery again, which is proving to be a great source of inspiration (I hope no-one finds this too depressing – for me it’s a place of peace and beauty). I went there intending to photograph the banks of snowdrops and crocus each side of the main path through it, but nothing worked the way I wanted it to and I found myself doing something entirely different.
The cemetery is full of trees, some of them very old, and what caught my attention was the intricate criss-crossing of the skeleton branches. It’s a difficult thing to make something of, because there’s so much going on and framing it in a way that makes visual sense is challenging. What started me off was the walk down the main pathway – there are very tall trees either side of what is quite a narrow path, and some of them lean in over the path. Looking up into them, it felt as if they were about to fall in on me. The image above was the one I took at that point.
I began to get an idea. By underexposing a little, I could emphasise a feeling of darkness and threat, an ominous quality. This isn’t at all how I felt, incidentally, but I liked the look of the images and felt that portraying the place this way was something I wanted to explore. This is a darker kind of vision for me – most of my pictures are light, bright and colourful, but there comes a time when it’s good to investigate other types of expression. There is also a certain Gothic element to this place that I feel these pictures bring out. These are not huggable, friendly trees – these are strong, silent, don’t-mess-with-me kind of trees.
The images have very little post-processing. They were deliberately under-exposed in-camera and I didn’t mess with the exposure settings afterwards. What I did experiment with was a technique I’d heard of but hadn’t tried before – when processing the RAW files I moved the clarity slider in the opposite direction to usual, making the images softer rather than sharpening them (which is what you’d usually use it for). I tried it both ways, but really liked the slight softening effect and so I went with that.
‘When you enter a grove peopled with ancient trees, higher than the ordinary, and shutting out the sky with their thickly inter-twined branches, do not the stately shadows of the wood, the stillness of the place, and the awful gloom of this doomed cavern then strike you with the presence of a deity?’
Fabulous view, but what marks this image out from a postcard of the same thing?
We took a trip to the Azores about five years ago. Sao Miguel, the island where we were based, was a stunningly beautiful place, its twisting roads winding through incredible scenery. The roads were narrow, and the only places you could stop were at designated laybys. The laybys had been thoughtfully situated where the ‘best’ views were, but made me feel that my opportunity to interpret the landscape in a way that was personal to me had been taken away from me. They might as well have set the area up with concrete footprints and tripod feet impressions, and a sign saying ‘stand and shoot here’. (I wrote about my experiences here.)
Not every place is quite so restricting, but in many tourist destinations it’s easy to feel that it’s all been done before and that you might as well go and buy some postcards, because your shots are going to look exactly like them anyway. Although just about everyone wants to go somewhere new and exotic to do some photography, it’s far more difficult to get shots that are personal to you – it’s so easy to get seduced by the sheer beauty or awesomeness of the place and end up taking very standard shots that look like a hundred others.
I get quite bemused looking through the ads for photography holidays, all of them going to amazing, scenic, places. Yes, it’s fantastic to go and see these places, but until you’ve learned to properly see what’s in your own neighbourhood, you won’t really see what’s there either – all you’ll notice is the obvious. My feeling is that if you want to stretch yourself photographically then go somewhere where it’s not obvious what to shoot or how to get an interesting picture out of what’s there. Once you learn to do that, you’re going to get some much better shots when you do go somewhere gorgeous and you won’t waste the opportunity.
When I took these shots five years ago, I was feeling my way towards this approach. Here are some of the things I found that helped:
Get the obvious shots out of the way – it’s often the case that you need to take these first before you can allow the less obvious to make itself known to you (it empties your mind so that it can fill again). They’re not wasted – they’ll act as record shots and bring back memories, and you can show them to people who won’t understand your other stuff.
Give yourself some time to absorb the feeling of the place – one of the reasons that holiday shots can be disappointing is that you can’t keep re-visiting the same spots over a long period of time. Going back to somewhere again and again will result in better and better shots over time, as you come to know the place and properly ‘see’ it. Remember that Yosemite was on Ansel Adams doorstep and not some exotic locale he visited occasionally.
When something stops you in your tracks, think about using it as the springboard for a series of themed images. You can still photograph anything and everything – you don’t want to limit yourself to just one or two themes when you’re visiting somewhere new – but it will act as the basis for your own personal interpretation of the place. Look for what grabs you personally – often it’s the small details of a place.
Forget about what anyone else thinks – your interpretation of a place might not appeal to everyone, especially if they don’t have the same level of visual education. Don’t let that get in the way. Do what’s good for you, and what will give you satisfaction and pleasure, and remember you can still share the more obvious postcard shots with the people who don’t get the other stuff you’re doing.
It was the water on Sao Miguel that captured me, in the end. It’s full of natural springs, so there are small fountains and water spouts everywhere. Because of the mineral salts in the water, these are often brilliantly coloured. I became fascinated by these, and also by the numerous hot springs and pools. The Azores have some of the highest humidity levels you’ll find anywhere, the islands are small drops of land surrounded by a vast expanse of ocean, water flows and springs and cascades and bubbles up all over the land, and off-season there are sudden torrential downpours of rain, so the essence of the place for me is to be found in its water. Water is also something I love to photograph, so these images bring together my own fascination for water with the water that symbolises the Azores.
Newark Cemetery is just opposite the end of our road, less than five minutes walk from our house. It’s a huge place, long and narrow, with both new and ancient graves and a section devoted to Polish War Graves. It functions as much as a park as it does a cemetery, being a popular place for dog-walking, cycling, and gentle strolls, and it’s full of greenery and beautiful old trees. It’s also a non-denominational cemetery with many different religions represented, and I like this.
I’ve been meaning to have a little photography expedition there for quite a while, but didn’t get round to it till recently. I had it in mind that I’d use my Lensbaby, because the somewhat surreal style caused by the blurring seemed to suit the subject matter. In addition, as it’s winter and there isn’t much greenery at the moment, I decided to shoot in black and white. This is really very unusual for me – I love colour so much I practically never shoot in black and white – but I felt like shaking myself up a bit and trying something different.
I set the camera up to shoot in RAW + jpeg – a nice way of managing to get both black and white and colour at the same time. The preview displayed on the LCD screen shows the jpeg, which is in black and white, so you can see exactly what you’re getting with each shot, but the RAW file contains the colour information so you can make a colour version as well. If you want to use the RAW file for your black and white image – and why wouldn’t you? – you convert it to b&w in post-processing, which also gives you a lot more control over the end result.
What was quite surprising when I eventually viewed the RAW files is that there was an amazing amount of colour in the shots. I put this down to the Lensbaby, which seems to capture colour that you often don’t know is there, which makes it one of my favourite lenses for colour photography. When I get the time I might process a colour version of some of these images and put them side by side for comparison.
There’s lots of potential in this place. I feel as if I’ve just scraped the surface of what’s there, and I’m sure I’ll be going back time after time and hopefully getting better shots each time I do. One of my favourite parts of the cemetery is the area with the Polish war graves – there’s a simplicity and a symmetry about the multitude of plain white stones that I find very appealing. Unfortunately I didn’t get a shot I was happy with, so I haven’t included any here.
At the other extreme, some of the graves are so smothered in statues, artificial flowers, vases, balloons, Christmas wreaths, baubles, and in one case, an almost life-size horse made out of flowers, that the sheer over-the-topness of it all just begs to be photographed – however, this is something that I think would work best in colour. I’d also love to do some candid shots of the people who use the place, but I feel uncomfortable with this. It’s a busy place and I’ve never seen a cemetery where there are so many people tending graves, but to photograph someone tending the grave of a loved one seems too much like an intrusion into their privacy.
So this is it for now – I was surprised how much I enjoyed shooting black and white, mostly because it’s always good to do something different and to stretch yourself a little. It was also good to get the Lensbaby out again, despite the usual frustrations I have with getting the focussing right. I had to go back and re-shoot a couple of images because I’d failed to get the focus in the right place but that’s all part of the fun, I guess.
I’m back, after a much longer absence than I ever planned. In fact, I didn’t plan to be absent at all, or at least not for more than a week or two, but I got distracted by our house move and perhaps because of that lost all interest in photography for a while. It’s happened to me before but never for so long, and this time I seriously wondered if I’d ever pick up a camera again. Slowly, slowly, my motivation has crept back and now I feel ready to move forward again.
When you’ve been out of the loop for a while it takes time to get your hand in again, so today’s offering isn’t the most exciting set of photos I’ve ever posted, but they are a reminder of a lovely day. I’ve made quite a few friends online, but have only met a small number of them, so it’s always a special day when I get to come face to face with someone I’ve ‘known’ for a while but have never met in person. Last week I went to York for the day to meet up with Dave – who is just as lovely a person in reality as he’s always seemed online – and we had an enjoyable walk along York’s beautiful River Ouse, some great conversation, a satisfyingly large lunch, and then we finished up with a yellow bicycle hunt.
As we wandered round York, I’d noticed a yellow painted bicycle hanging on the city wall. I’m afraid I’m utterly and shamefully ignorant when it comes to sporting events, so it took Dave to inform me that York had been part of the Tour de France route and that all the yellow bicycles liberally sprinkled round the city were there to mark the occasion. Of course, you have to photograph something like that, and the yellow bicycles became the photographic theme for the day. Neither of us was familiar with the city, so our walking route became dictated by any sighting of a yellow bicycle – ‘Look! -there’s one there! – OK, let’s go that way then.’ And so we walked, doubling back on ourselves, going round in circles, but always following the yellow bicycles. That kept us happy for quite a while, and here are the results.
Note: the only lens I had with me was my Lensbaby, so these have all been taken with that. It’s actually quite a good choice for this, as it helps focus attention on the bicycles and softens and blurs the surrounding environment. It’s been a long time since I took the Lensbaby out for a walk so some of my focussing isn’t quite where I wish it had been. It’s also a shame the light was so flat that day – although it was exceedingly warm, it was one of those overcast days with a lot of cloud so I feel the results also look a little flat. Everything emerged from the camera with rather a cold blue cast to it, so I’ve had to warm it all up a little.
This is usually a bad time of year for me in photography terms, and this year is no different. Although I can see the possibilities out there, I lose that feeling of really wanting to go out and shoot that’s stirred in me by the light and colour of the other seasons. I’m also still pondering where to go with this blog – having said I want to write about other things, my mind has – of course – gone quite blank. What on earth were those things I itched to write about? I’ve no idea. I’m sure they’ll come back to me eventually, and for the moment I’m content to let things percolate quietly away in that inaccessible part of my brain that’s prone to making contact with the rest of me only as and when it feels like it.
So, no new pictures, but some old ones that I never got round to processing. Even though I’ve been very happy in this area because of the friends I’ve made and the interesting things I’ve been doing, I still feel a big pang of homesickness for the woods and the sea. The sea is a long way off, only to be visited occasionally, but I did think it would be easier to find large stretches of woodland. There are some – for example, Sherwood Forest and Clumber Park, but they’re a bit of a drive away and far too visitor-friendly for my taste. I don’t want facilities. I don’t want tarmacked paths and signposts, or cafes, or gift shops, or play areas, or even toilets. I want somewhere that feels remote and that has enough mud to deter most visitors, leaving it nice and quiet for me and the other anti-social people who use it. I want to switch off when I walk. I use it as a kind of meditation, a calming down, a breathing space, and it doesn’t work for me if there are too many other folk there.
After a while I did find some woodland quite nearby. It’s a ten-minute drive, which isn’t too bad, and the woods are beautiful, if on the small side, and apart from a small kiosk in the car park they have no facilities at all. They really are quite small, and the choice of walks is very limited, but I’m just grateful that there’s anything at all within easy reach. There are areas of deciduous trees and work is underway to increase the size of these, but the greater part of the wood is made up of conifers. Have you ever noticed how quiet pine forests are? – there’s a peace in this place that’s very soothing to the spirit. I took these photos on two different visits, both in the autumn. It’s been quite a while since I played around with the Orton technique and I still have a soft spot for it, so I’ve processed these both straight and Orton-style.
I’m going to put them side by side – well, more top and bottom, really, but it’s a figure of speech – so that you can see the difference quite clearly. What I like about Orton is that it makes things look a little dreamlike and insubstantial and it also masks detail that I’d rather not see, like all the twiggy stuff in the foreground of some of these shots. It also brings out colours very strongly, so strongly, in fact, that I had to desaturate the Ortonised images to make them look less like those poorly printed and luridly over-saturated postcards of the 1960s.
If anyone reading has any preference as to which works best for you, or any other comments on them come to that, I’d be very interested to hear. I prefer the Ortonised ones myself, mostly because they move away from straight depiction of place and more towards the feeling and mystery of it. I think it’s probably just personal taste in the end but it’s always interesting to hear another point of view. (Note: the image at the top of the post didn’t respond well to Ortonisation because of the strong colours, so don’t go looking for its Orton counterpart – there isn’t one.)
Clearing, Orton technique
Path, Orton technique
Shelter, Orton technique
Green, Orton technique
*Loosely quoted from Byron: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. Really quite apt, since Byron is rumoured to have stayed in our cottage when it was still a coaching inn.