St Martin in the Fields

St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square

St Martin in the Fields Church steeple, behind Trafalgar Square fountain

I had a welcome teaching break in London last weekend, and I managed to fit in a day with my friend Jill.  We met up in the area around Trafalgar Square, and thought we’d go and have a look in St Martin in the Fields Church, which is very nearby and rather nice inside – or so I’m told, anyway.  I never did get to see it, as when we got there we saw a queue of people all holding tickets made out of red card, and then we spotted a notice saying there was to be a memorial service for Eric Sykes.  Jill suggested we stick around to see if anyone famous turned up, and what do you know, they did!  We spotted June Whitfield, Robert Powell, Richard Stilgoe (you may not know him – he used to do a lot of work with Esther Rantzen many years ago), a very well-known comedy actor whose name we couldn’t remember, Kevin Wateley (from Morse), and best of all, Michael Palin, on whom I have a bit of a big girl’s crush.

We got quite excited and there we were, two middle-aged women, squealing like teenagers every time we saw someone we recognised.  It got me to wondering why it is that even when you hate the whole celebrity cult thing, it’s still really exciting to see someone in real life that you know from film or TV.  And that got me to wondering if it was a bit similar to how you feel when you see a painting or a photograph that you’ve only ever seen in reproduction before.  With these, of course, there’s the fact that you can finally see them in their original size, and with texture present (in the case of paintings), but I think there’s a little bit more to it than that.

I think there’s something in the fact that you don’t totally believe these things exist, in their own right, somewhere out there in the world, and then you finally see something that, say, Turner himself was in contact with and that you could reach out and touch for yourself – if that was allowed.  So when you see an actor in real life, there’s a feeling of ‘wow, they really exist!’ and I could almost have reached out and touched Michael Palin’s sleeve – if that was the sort of thing that respectable middle-aged women were allowed to do.  Whatever the reason, it added a little spark to our day, which was shaping up very nicely already.

All of this aside, outside the church there is a lovely sculpture of a baby boy emerging out of a large lump of stone. The baby is half in, half out of the stone and it reminded me of those rocks you can break in half to reveal an ammonite or other fossil inside.  It was if the stone had been broken in half and revealed this perfect little baby hidden in its interior, still attached by its umbilical cord to the earth from which it’s emerging.  It wasn’t easy to photograph, as the top of the stone was high enough to stop me getting above it, but I did my best.  And with a bit of delving around on the web, I found out that it was created by someone called Mike Chapman, whose website is here. Oddly enough, the website for the church doesn’t even give it a mention.

Stone baby, St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square

Stone baby, St Martin in the Fields, Trafalgar Square

Falling into the sky

Reflected sky, Talacre Beach

I’m fascinated by reflections. Yes, it’s yet another cliche and I know that, but hey ho, I like them and I don’t care.  At the moment I’m particularly enjoying taking shots of the sky reflected on the ground. Perhaps it could be classed as a variation on my Fallen series – pieces of fallen sky.

When I was about eight years old I went on a bike ride with my older cousin.  It was a sunny day, but there had been a lot of rain and there were puddles everywhere.  Cycling along a country lane we came to one puddle that was several inches deep and spread right across the road – it was really more like a small pond.  The air was still, and the clouds, sky and trees were perfectly reflected, as sharply and smoothly as if in a polished mirror.  I looked into it and felt like I was falling into the sky.

I couldn’t go through it, I simply couldn’t – I froze, there at the edge. My cousin did everything she could to persuade me, even cycling back and forwards through it herself to show me it was all fine.  But even with ripples, it looked far too real.  I knew I’d fall into the sky if I tried it.  We turned round and went back.

Later, I found out that fear of falling into the sky is a recognised phobia – it’s called casadastraphobia.  People who suffer from it commonly fear that the earth will flip and that they’ll fall into an endless sky.  I can relate.  Nowadays, though, I rather like the idea of falling into the sky and losing myself in it.

These shots were taken at Talacre Beach, at the same time as I shot the lighthouse reflections.

Floating earth, Talacre Beach

Sky puddle, Talacre Beach

Cloud puddle, Talacre Beach

Earth and sky, Talacre Beach

To the lighthouse – photographing cliches

Talacre Lighthouse

There’s a wonderful beach at Talacre, in North Wales. Unfortunately it’s somewhat spoiled by the tacky caravan sites that line its edges for miles, but it’s big and beautiful enough to survive this.  At this time of year, there aren’t many holidaymakers and most people are there to walk and enjoy the open expanses.  One of the most photographed landmarks on this stretch of coast is the old lighthouse and the kind of shots you see are pretty similar to the one above (of course, many are lots better than this one, but all quite similar – interesting sky/sunset/sunrise, open stretch of beach, romantic lighthouse, etc).  I’ve been pondering the problem of photographing cliches for the past few years and have a few thoughts that I’d like to share with you here.

-It’s all been done before (but not by you). Of course it’s all been done before – there really isn’t anything new under the sun and no matter how original you think you are, somebody somewhere will be doing something similar.  This is especially true if you’re photographing something that’s hugely popular, whether because it’s a well-known landmark or just a popular subject, like flowers.  But the point is, you haven’t done it yet and you probably need to if only to get it out of your system.  Even if your image is no different or better than a million others, it was you who took it and you who have the experience and memory of being there.  It may not mean much to anyone else, but it has meaning for you and that really is enough to justify it (not that you should have to). And more importantly, if we weren’t allowed to do anything that’s been done before, we wouldn’t be able to do anything much at all.

-It’s been done before but you might be able to bring something new to the party. Two people can take the same shot, but it will be different – you’ll never take exactly the same shot as someone else even if you try.  There are instances where you might come close – one of these happened when I took a shot of an old window in Italy, and then came across someone online who’d taken the – almost – identical shot.  We used pretty much identical composition and framing, but her shot had more leaves on the vine surrounding the window and my shot had more interesting lighting.  The same, but not the same.  As it turned out – we’re now friends – we think and see very similarly.  But this is quite unusual – most of the time, if you put six photographers in front of the same scene, you’ll get six very different images.  The extent of these differences tends to reflect the extent of the group’s creativity, so in a group of beginners there’s likely to be more homogeneity than in a group of experienced photographers. But I’ve taught enough beginners to have seen that even people starting out will produce very different interpretations of the same subject matter.  You do have something to bring to the party.

– You usually need to do the cliched shots before you can hope for anything better. Only a tiny number of us can jump straight to being inventive and creative, and I expect even these people reject a lot of their early attempts.  Just as a writer wouldn’t expect to get a finished piece of work down at first go, and would write a rough draft that gets more and more refined with each edit, our first shots are likely to be ordinary and uninteresting.  Keep going, though, keep shooting, and eventually you’ll leave the obvious behind.  What happens is that you run out of ideas quite quickly and then you have to let something else take over.  The ‘something else’ is what’s going to give you what you want – boredom often leads to creativity.

– When it comes to cliches for subjects, there are basically two ways of tackling things. Once you’ve got the obvious shots out of the way, the first – and what usually feels like the easiest – is to look for something unusual or interesting or different.  The photos that follow are like this.  The strange cyberman-like figure on the lighthouse balcony was an obvious choice.  It leads to an image that’s interesting because it shows something unusual, rather than because of any particular cleverness on the photographer’s part.  It’s the content that makes this work.

Metallic man, Talacre Lighthouse

The next few are similar.  A number of roses had been carefully placed around the concrete base of the lighthouse, and there was a rose at each side of the door – one red, one yellow – flanking a small glittery candle.  Some kind of ritual or ceremony?  I don’t know, but it was intriguing.  Again, any interest these images have is because of the unusual juxtaposition of roses and lighthouse and doesn’t have a lot to do with the photographer.

Yellow roses, Talacre Lighthouse

Yellow rose, Talacre Lighthouse

Looking back down the lighthouse steps towards the beach produces a reasonably interesting shot because of its unusual angle and the contrast of the seaweed covered rocks with the sand surrounding it, but it’s without depth or emotion.  There’s not much I can get excited about in this shot.

Steps, Talacre Lighthouse

This one, I feel, is slightly better and has more of me in it.  I liked the way both the lighthouse and the post act as signs and echo each other.

Signpost, Talacre beach

– The second approach is less easy. You let yourself be guided by what draws you and what inspires you, regardless of whether it’s a new idea or not.  The hope is that something a little different will come out of it, but if it doesn’t you at least have the compensation of having had a great time taking the shots.  What immediately grabbed me when we walked onto the beach were the reflections in the seawater pools.  What I really liked was the ambiguity of the crystal clear lighthouse reflections mixed with the sand ripples and pebbles in the pool.  These are the shots that make me happy regardless of what anyone else thinks about them.  These are the shots that I got so excited about I couldn’t be pulled away. I don’t think they’re all that original – puddle reflections are a cliche in themselves – but it seems to me that they have something of ‘me’ in them that the other shots don’t, and that’s a result.

Reflection 1, Talacre Lighthouse

Reflection 3, Talacre Lighthouse

Reflection 2, Talacre Lighthouse



The colours of Moel Famau

Path, Moel Famau

One of the hardest things in photography is to simplify. Every good photograph is a distillation – a removal of anything that dilutes the spirit of the subject, bringing out its essence and its full flavour.  I read somewhere that as you become more skilled as a photographer, you become able to manage more and more complex scenes, focussing attention on what you want people to see and handling distractions with aplomb.  When you have a simple scene it’s relatively easy to select the part you want and exclude the parts you don’t, but the more lines and shapes and colours and textures that are present, the harder it is to stop it looking like a great big muddle.  A lot of my early shots definitely fell into that category – some still do, but you don’t get to see those……..

One situation I always found challenging was to photograph woodland – there’s so much going on. The complexities of overlapping branches and bushes and trees, all those leaves, the contrasts of bright sun and dark shadow, and the innate untidiness of nature left me not knowing what or where to shoot – I couldn’t figure out how to simplify things.  I realise I must have improved somewhat, because I don’t find it so hard any more. Somehow it’s become easier to see broad shapes and swathes of colour and to select the bit I want.

We visited the forest around Moel Famau last week. Moel Famau is the name of one of the peaks in the Clwydian mountains in Wales.  They’re not large mountains by any standard – more like very big hills – but we didn’t go all the way up.  It was one of those days they’d call ‘soft’ if we were in Ireland – slightly misty, a little damp, cool but not cold, bright but with low white cloud.  Not the kind of light I usually favour, but it really worked in terms of bringing out the soft but vibrant pastel colours.  These aren’t my usual colours – I tend to go for strong, bright shades and higher contrast – but I love the way they’ve come out.  I added a teensy bit of Orton effect – very subtly – just to bring out the colours a little more and to emphasis the slightly fairytale feel of the place.

Woodland pastels, Moel Famau

Pastel conifers, Moel Famau

Green bush, Moel Famau

Dew, Moel Famau

Green, Moel Famau

Mud and leaves, Moel Famau

Treeline, Moel Famau

Yellow bush, Moel Famau

Fairytale woods, Moel Famau

London rain

Umbrellas outside the Bank of EnglandPeople queueing to see inside the Bank of England building, OpenHouseLondon, 2012

London never fails to inspire me. It’s a tiresome place in many ways – the hassle and time involved in getting around it, the uncomfortable humidity of the tube system that slaps you in the face like a hot wet blanket, the carrying of a heavy bag up endless stairs, the crowds of people so wrapped up in their own worlds that they don’t even see you as they push past, the expense of it all – but despite that I love the visual stimulation it offers.  I’ve found nowhere round here that affects me in the same way.

The occasion this time was my first workshop for Hairy Goat in nearly a year. It felt good to be out there again, teaching, helping, feeling as if I had a purpose, and of course, bringing in a little income too.  I was a bit rusty – my explanations weren’t as polished as they could have been, the cameras were new models that I hadn’t seen before and had to figure out how to work, and I felt at times that I was dredging knowledge up from the sticky, muddy depths of my memory – but I think it went well, considering, and everyone seemed happy enough.

They turned out to be a very self-sufficient group and didn’t need much at all in the way of help when we went photo-walking, so I got a lot of opportunity to take pictures.  It was a wet day – a very wet day – but rain can be a gift sometimes and the shots I got owe everything to it.  It always interests me to see how students respond when the weather is bad.  You can see that some of them would rather be somewhere else – anywhere else that was warm and dry – and some of them stoicly soldier on but without really having their hearts in it.   But the ones I always think of as the true photographers get so excited by what they’re seeing that they forget they’re getting wet and cold, and are so absorbed in their photography that they barely notice it.  You just know that they will be the ones that will go on to produce really good work.

I took a lot of pictures and they’ve fallen quite naturally into several different themes. I’m going to start with buildings and people, although these aren’t the shots I’m happiest with.  I also have some great reflection shots, some more to add to my Fallen series, and some involving red parking lines, all of which I’m very chuffed about.   I made myself process these ones first because there were fewer of them to get through, but the others are on their way………

Yellow umbrella, Royal Exhange Square, London

Bank Tube station, London

Phoebe, camera workshop

Wet day, London

Corinna, Beginners workshop, September 2012

Antony Gormley’s Another Place

Gormley's Another Place 21

One of the things I was excited about when we moved up here was the fact that we’re not far from Crosby, where Antony Gormley has an installation of 100 statues on the beach – something I’d always wanted to see.  Last weekend we took a trip there; it was a grey day on the whole and I thought my chances of getting any decent shots were low, but they’ve turned out surprisingly well.  Admittedly I’ve helped them along quite a bit by under-exposing slightly and doing copious amounts of dodging and burning.  One thing I found very difficult was getting the colour balance right: there was a blue cast that was easy enough to get rid of in the areas of the beach or sea, but what looked natural there left the sky and horizon looking unnaturally blue.  I ended up making a selection of the sky and desaturating the blues and cyans to get something that at least didn’t look totally artificial.

All the images I’ve seen of these figures have shown them against a sunset/sunrise/interesting sky, in the tradition of classic landscape photographs.  The impression you get from these is of some lonely, windswept, romantically-isolated place – the reality is somewhat different.  Crosby, it has to be said, is not a pretty place.  The beach itself is wonderful, but the promenade doesn’t have a lot to recommend it and the Mr Whippy ice-cream van and burger vans don’t help.  The beach is busy, even on a grey day like this, and there are lots of people wandering around with or without dogs, looking at the statues.

The interaction of people, dogs and metal figures is interesting in its own right and I’d like to spend some time there one day doing a bit of ‘street’ photography, more along the lines of the image lower down with the seagull.  However, despite the fact it creates something that’s unreal in many ways, I like the feeling of space, expansiveness, and melancholy that you get when you leave out the ugly bits and capture the essence of these strange, compelling figures.  Photography really is all about what you choose to include or to leave out.

Gormley's Another Place 02

Gormely's Another Place 17

Gormely's Another Place 27

Gormley's Another Place 57

Gormley's Another Place 52

Gormley's Another Place 12

Gormley's Another Place 49

Gormley's Another Place 11

Gormley's Another Place 29

Gormley's Another Place 54

Gormley's Another Place 16

And then there’s this one; not quite in the same vein as the others.

Gormley's Another Place 38

Finally, Crosby Beach without figures; rather a beautiful place in its own right.

Crosby Beach

Putting down roots

Old Railway tunnel

Roots, and home, and all that that means have been on my mind lately. I’m terribly unhappy at the moment and find it hard to write anything and even harder to muster up any enthusiasm for taking photos.  I feel displaced, out of tune with where I am, and almost as if I’m suffering a bereavement, but of a place rather than a person.  This last weekend I hit a new low and spent much of it in tears, sobbing from a deep, deep place, remembering all the things I loved about where I used to live and missing the friends I used to be able to see.   It’s hard not to see myself as pathetic and inadequate – I know of many other people who move countries and even continents and take it all in their stride.  I’ve been wondering why it’s hit me so hard.

I’ve made a major move before and didn’t feel like this. But that time I was glad to be going, glad to be leaving a marriage that was falling apart and a place where I never had felt that I fitted.  I grew up near Glasgow in central Scotland and lived there until I was nearly thirty, but it never felt right to me.  I loved the Scottish land and scenery with a passion, but I found the towns and villages grey and austere and lacking in flowers, joy and life.  I didn’t fit with the people there either – Glaswegians are wonderfully friendly, funny, helpful, and easy to chat to, but they don’t have much interest in the arts (they regard you as rather suspect and a little bit up-your-own-**** if you do) and they don’t tend towards deep thinking (something I know I do too much of, but it’s who I am).  I liked a lot of people but never felt I could connect with them in any meaningful way.  So moving several hundred miles south didn’t make me feel as if I was being torn out by the roots, as I do now.

After a few years in the south-east, I ended up in Canterbury where I stayed for the next twenty-five and for the first time in my life I felt at home somewhere.  I put down roots there, great solid curling roots that drew in ample nourishment for my life.  I didn’t seem so much the odd one out, which was a huge relief and I was happy there.  It was the kind of place I used to dream about living when I was growing up.  While few places can compare to the drama of the Scottish mountains and coast, I loved the gentle, rolling Englishness of the scenery and the pretty, flower-filled villages and mediaeval towns.  I loved the orchards that grew everywhere and the sunnier, warmer climate.  Over the years I found places that came to mean a lot to me: the green, mossy, RSPB woods at Blean; the astonishingly lovely gardens at Mount Ephraim; the wide empty pebble-filled beach at Sandwich Bay, which was always quiet even on a hot summer’s day because you had to pay a toll to drive on the road to it and where you could park your car almost on the beach; another bay at St Margaret’s where you could buy an ice-cream and watch huge ships sail into Dover harbour; Canterbury Cathedral, where I spent hours with my camera; a secret wild-flower meadow just off the main street; Jojo’s in Tankerton, probably my favourite restaurant ever; Whitstable, with its quirky shops and working harbour and promenade lined with pastel coloured houses; and the list goes on and on.  It physically hurts when I think about these.  It’s early days, I know, but I haven’t found anything here that I love that much yet; it’s a different sort of place here and I’m not sure I ever will.

The thing that has bothered me most is my loss of enthusiasm for photography. I’ve hardly taken any shots since I got here and have had little or no inclination to.  I’ve wondered if my passion for it will ever come back, and at the weekend I even thought about abandoning it altogether.  While it often helps to write about things that trouble me, photography has always been associated with joy for me and I’ve never known how to use it otherwise.  I’ve taken photos because I’m happy, and what I see makes me happy, and I want to make other people happy by giving them – hopefully – something wonderful to look at.  But today I went out for a walk and photographed roots.

The Wirral Way is a cycle/walking track created from an old, disused railway line. In one area the rock has been sliced into and cut away, forming a sort of roofless tunnel of sandstone.  All along its length, trees and plants cling precariously to the rock and small pockets of shallow soil. Like me, they’re trying to root themselves in a place that isn’t quite suited to them.  Some of them manage to flourish regardless; some of them have established a foothold, but remain immensely vulnerable to the elements; some have their roots hanging in the air, looking for something to cling to.  I can identify.

Roots 2

Roots 3

Between a rock and a hard place

This little fern looks so vulnerable.  You can see the run of water that’s both keeping it alive and threatening to wash it away.



Here I stand; tree on rock

Tree on the edge 1

Tree on the edge 2

There’s something terribly optimistic about these little green ferns, managing to thrive but with their roots dangling in mid-air.  They make me think of terrestrial jellyfish.


Hanging roots


Liverpool, old and new

Liver building, Liverpool

My prints have arrived – fantastic service from Photobox, as I ordered them yesterday lunchtime and they turned up first thing this morning.  All of them work, except for one that I think looks out of place with the rest.  It may have to go in anyway, as I don’t have another alternative; on the other hand, it’s a nice day out there and if I can get something today I still have time to get a print made.

I’m beginning to realise how worried I’ve been about this assignment; I wasn’t consciously worrying about it, but now that it’s all but done I feel a huge sense of relief and my back pain has improved beyond all recognition!  Just goes to show how much the mind affects the body.  I suddenly feel enthusastic about my photography again, too – I was beginning to wonder if my loss of interest was permanent.

I’ve started processing a backlog of stuff that my general apathetic state had allowed to build up, and which includes these shots of Liverpool.  I don’t find Liverpool a very inspiring place photographically – it’s not a beautiful city, although it has lots of other things to recommend it – but the light was wonderful on the day I took these.  The image above is of the famous Liver bird building – probably completely unknown by anyone outside the UK, but the stone birds on this building have become a large part of Liverpool’s identity.  The modern wall in front of it belongs to the recently opened Museum of Liverpool.  It seems quite appropriate to have the old and the new together.  The photo below is of old Liverpool reflected in the window of the Museum of Liverpool so it, too, brings old and new together.

Museum of Liverpool, reflection

Liverpool reflection

I particularly liked the wavy, squiggly shapes that this reflection produced, so I cropped in to the picture above for a close-up shot that shows them off better.  I thought it would work well in black and white, but it didn’t – I think I need to seriously improve my black and white conversion skills.

Liverpool reflection 3

The picture postcard Azores

Azores village

A couple of years ago we went to Sao Miguel island in the Azores. The Azores had fascinated me ever since I heard about them; most people have no idea where they are and neither did I till I went there.  (Just to fill you in, they’re a small archepelago of islands right in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, roughly level with Lisbon in Portugal)  They’re volcanic islands, and there’s still a lot of geothermal activity going on, with thermal springs, bubbling hot mud, and the sort of thing you’d generally expect to find in Iceland.   In fact, that was a large part of their appeal to me – Icelandic geology but with sunshine and warmth instead of cold and rain.  They’re also a prime whale-watching site, but we never did see any of those.

There’s some stunning scenery there, but two things were working against me at the time.  One was that I was feeling very uninspired and disillusioned with photography in general, and landscape photography in particular; I’d just started my Landscape course and I knew I wasn’t interested in taking the kind of standard landscape shots that I thought it required.  Over time I realised I could interpret the brief much more freely than I’d thought, but that’s another story.

The second thing was that roads on Sao Miguel are narrow and there is only one main road that rings the island.  You can’t just stop anywhere you feel like it, so you’re forced to drive past lots of – what were to me – very interesting shots.  To accommodate tourists, stopping places have been created wherever there are ‘views’.  You stop, you get out your car, you stand in the designated place, and you take your shot.  To me, this feels like painting by numbers.  You end up with a very nice shot, but it’s identical to the ones on the postcards in the tourist shops and so I think you might as well save yourself the trouble and buy a postcard.  I couldn’t find any way of getting my own vision into these shots and I got very bored with taking them.  So bored that they’ve mostly been lying on my hard-drive for the last two years without seeing the light of day.

View to Sete Cicades

Tea plantation, Sao Miguel

As our stay went on, I dutifully shot the prescribed views but I also started looking for other, often smaller, things that interested me.  I took some ‘view’ shots that weren’t from prescribed places on bright sunny days and liked these a bit better.

Summer storm, Azores

Approaching storm, Azores


Misty morning, Azores

Sunset, Azores

Mountain road, Azores

Two trees, Terra Nostra Park, Azores

And then I became fascinated by all the little thermal springs and wells that we found everywhere we went; some of these had quite astounding colours formed by the sediment left by the minerals in the water.

Spring water, Azores

Spring water, Azores

Spring water, Azores

Spring water, Azores

Furnas spring, Azores

Thermal stream, Azores

Thermal water, Azores

I was also drawn to taking small detail shots; the distinctive roofs and tiles, windows, wildlife, and the wonderful light and shade caused by the strong, hot sun.  By this time I was enjoying my photography a whole lot more.

Drinking cat, Azores

Roof tile shadow, Azores

Forest floor, Azores

Curly bottom feathers

Shutters, Azores

Gatepost, Terra Nostra Park, Azores

House, Azores

Roof tile detail, Azores

What I remember when I look at these is the push/pull I felt between taking photos that ‘explain’ the place to people who haven’t been there, and taking these pictures of small details that say ‘Azores’ to me when I look at them but would mean nothing to most folk.  These shots could work for someone who’d been there, and in fact might be quite effective in that case, but would be pretty useless for a tourist brochure or to give someone an impression of the place.

This is more of an issue with somewhere like the Azores because most people have little or no knowledge of the place.  If you take a very well-known tourist destination – let’s say London – people all over the world are familiar with the major sights and icons, so shooting small and quirky details only expands on that knowledge.  However, if you want to communicate to people what the Azores are like, you really do need to concentrate on the ‘tourist’ pictures that I found so boring to take.  I like all of these shots much better looking at them now than I did then and wonder why I was so ready to dismiss them at the time.  I know I was bored and uninterested taking the ‘postcard’ shots, and felt much more inspired and involved when taking the detail ones; these seem more ‘me’ somehow.

I guess the question is who you take the shots for, and why. I think I was trying to do two things at once: take photos I could show to friends and family to let them see what the place is like, and take photos that I enjoyed taking and were very personal to me, but which wouldn’t function as ‘tourist’ pictures.