Bah Humbug, and Happy Holidays to all!

Baah Humbug

I don’t like Christmas much. There was a time when I did, when I was part (by a previous marriage) of a large extended family and we shared the cooking and baking, made decorations out of boughs of evergreen and pinecones sprayed gold, and the whole day was a whirl of children and dogs and adults all having a thoroughly good time.  There were always at least one or two people who’d been invited because they didn’t have anywhere else to go, and so it was also a time for sharing and inclusion.  Those felt like real Christmases – nourishing and wholesome and good.

Things change, life moves on, and it’s tempting to go off on a lament about the increasing commercialism, the loss of meaning (and I’m not referring to religious meaning here), and how tired and tiring it’s all become.  But what I mostly don’t like about it is this: despite its problems, I like my normal life and I don’t want it all to grind to a halt for two weeks while this madness takes its place.  The things I most like to do stop for the duration, and the places I most like to go become over-crowded with people and therefore no longer attractive.  I’ve always felt that holidays of any description are only made so much of because a lot of people don’t like what they do the rest of the time.  The annual two-week break is a kind of consolation prize for hating the remaining fifty weeks.  If you love your normal life, you don’t mind too much if you don’t get a holiday from it.

I was reading a book called A Thousand Days in Tuscany earlier this year, and I bookmarked a page that I had in mind to quote when it came to the Christmas season.  It expresses my feelings so perfectly and eloquently that I’ll quote it at length:

Prescribed holidays can seem a sham to me.  I’d rather have a dose of celebrating in each day, some small recognition of the miracles contained in it.  The grand spectacles put me off.  They end, and when they do, one often feels whittled down rather than refreshed by them.  I like my daily life enough so that I’d rather live it even on Christmas.  I want to light the fire, bake my bread, run up to the Centrale for breakfast, cook a beautiful lunch and dine with Fernando and Barlozzo, read and sleep by the fire, stomp through the woods and into the tangled, frozen fields until I’m breathless and aching with the cold and with the wonder of a black, starry night.  Then I’d like to wrap my hands about a cup of hot, spiced wine and sip it together with our friends and neighbours who’ll surely gather, at some point in the evening, up at the bar.

So, yes, I’d like my normal life back again please – I’d prefer to enjoy my small celebrations in each day.  But in the meantime, and especially if the holidays are something that bring you joy, I wish all of you the best of Christmases (or whatever your holiday is), filled with laughter and love and good times.  And I also hope that you find these in each and every other day of the year.

Felting the landscape

Landscape and felt equivalent

In the name of getting myself out of the house and into contact with more people, I’ve been looking for interesting things to do locally. I thought I’d keep an open mind and try anything that’s arty, crafty, or alternative, as these are the kind of places I feel I’m most likely to come across interesting people.  A shop/art gallery called the Funky Aardvark has opened in Chester, and they were running a one-day workshop called Felting the Landscape.  The idea is you make a picture out of felt, based on a photograph.  There are pretty obvious reasons why I was interested in this and it sounded like fun so I thought I’d give it a go.  You can see my piece of felt above, underneath the landscape photo I used for inspiration.

It’s certainly not a masterpiece by anyone’s standards, but I don’t think it’s too bad for a first attempt.  I have no claims to be a textile artist, and I don’t think it’s a line I’ll be pursuing!  I’m happy sticking to photography – where I might have some modicum of talent – but it was an interesting exercise to transform something from one medium into another.  One of the big disadvantages of studying something through distance learning is that there aren’t any opportunities to step outside your main focus of study or to combine different media.

Felting is a very imprecise thing as the wool fibres move around a lot as you ‘felt’ them, and it’s difficult to get any sort of detail going on.  You can’t see it very well, but some of the twiggy things in my piece of felt were added afterwards using a technique called ‘needle felting’ and the wool for that came from my fellow workshop participant, Rachel.  Rachel keeps sheep (‘only fifty’, as she says) and these pieces of wool came from her own flock – I learned quite a bit about sheep keeping while I was there.  Rachel lives in Wales and I believe it’s almost obligatory to keep sheep if you have even a teensy bit of land and live in Wales. 🙂

Having had some time to reflect, I think I’d prefer to make pieces of felt that concentrate on abstract colour, rather than aiming for something pictorial.  I thought perhaps I could use some home-made felt to make the cover for a book – I’m not sure at the moment what that would be, but it occurred to me that a photography book portraying aspects of the landscape and a cover made from the wool of the sheep that graze it could be an interesting way to go.  Perhaps that’s a little obvious, but I’m sure there are lots of other possibilities.

If you’re ever in Chester, the Funky Aardvark is well worth a visit. The shop is amazing – there’s so much in it you can’t take it all in at once, but they have high-quality crafts of every variety, including some beautiful glass pieces and many things made out of hand-made felt.  They also stock materials – sketchbooks, camera film (including out-of-date film to experiment with), wool, beads, and all sorts of other things.  They run arts and crafts workshops, analogue photo walks, and are starting a photography club very soon.  I’m really happy to have found this place and hope to be doing lots of interesting things there in the future.

20 other uses for your camera

These days almost everyone has a camera of some sort on their person all the time, even if it’s just a phone camera.  In my wanderings round the internet while putting off the things I really should be doing, I’ve come across a whole load of ideas for other things you can use a camera for.  I don’t usually do list posts but this lent itself to one.

1. If you lost your camera or phone, would anyone know how to find you?  Why not photograph a note of your phone number or email address so that some kind person can get it back to you?

Some cameras will allow you to lock a photo onto the memory card, so you don’t delete it with the rest of your pictures.

2. Another good idea is to keep notes of any allergies, medical condition, blood type, or anything else someone might need to know in an emergency.

3. Take a picture of the ingredients list for the recipe you’re planning to make before you go out to buy the goods. This would also work for projects, crafts, etc.

4. You know how you can never see what you look like when you try on new glasses? Get someone to take a picture of you and then you can.

5. Same applies to new clothes. Yes, you can see yourself in the mirror, but you often can’t see the back view and a photograph shows you much more clearly how good it all looks (or otherwise).

6. Remember last time you were in a bookshop and thought you’d get the book from the library rather than buy it? Of course you forgot the title and author by the time you got home. The answer is simple: take a snap of it. Use this idea for gifts and CDs too.

7. Seen a great hairstyle, nail design or tattoo in a window or a magazine? Make a note of it with your camera.

8. Ever lost your car in the airport car park? Photograph the letter and number of your space so you can find it easily when you get back.

9. You know the problem: you’ve seen a flyer for something interesting, or a service someone is offering, but you don’t have a pen and paper to write it down. Use your camera to make a note.

10. Sometimes you might find yourself in a bad situation: someone’s pranged your car, the parking meter is broken and you can’t buy a ticket, the fence really was broken before you went through, etc. Use your camera to take photos for the defence.

12. Just arrived and trying to find your way around a new city? Take a photo of the metro/tube/underground map so you don’t need to keep looking for one everywhere you go.

13. You can also photograph maps on your computer screen – better than carrying around scrappy bits of paper. Most cameras will allow you to zoom in for a closer view.

14. Ever taken something apart and then can’t remember how it goes together again? Take snaps of each stage in the process for reference.

15. Someone acting suspiciously round your property? A quick photo is a good insurance policy.

16. If you’re walking somewhere new and think you might not find your way back again, take photos of each turn in the road and road names and you won’t end up lost.

You can also use this idea to send people directions; I was visiting the home of a friend and hadn’t been there before – he went out on his bicycle and photographed all the junctions and roundabouts on the route and then drew arrows on them to show me which way to go. Perfect!

17. Now what sort of cable connection did you need for that new printer? Take a snap of it. Can’t remember what number of vacuum bag to get for replacements – take a snap of it. Forgotten what number of printer cartridge you need? – take a snap of it.

18. Looking for a house to buy or rent? Take photos as you’re shown round – your memory’s not as good as your camera’s.

19. Like how someone’s done up their bathroom or their bedroom? Take a picture.

20. Use it like a flashlight. If there’s a dark corner you need to see into, use the flash on your camera to light it up.

Last summer’s seed head

Seehead 1

I don’t know what’s wrong with me at the moment; I’m just not taking many photos, and that’s not good when you’re writing a photography blog.  I think some of it might be because I don’t really know where to go in this area in terms of interesting places to take pictures.  Or maybe it’s just that I’m still feeling unsettled and the creative juices aren’t flowing quite the way I’d like them to be.  That’s probably more like it, as I’ve just spent three days in London and hardly took anything at all while I was there, and that’s pretty unusual.

It seems a good time to go through the archives and pull out some things that got passed over at the time.  Last summer I brought home this seedhead.  I don’t know the name of the plant, although it’s very common; it’s bugging me a little, so if you know what it is, can you tell me please?  I love the clear-cut spikiness of the bottom bits (I’m not good on botanical terms) and the intricacy of all the little seeds that make up the head.  I spent quite a while photographing it from every possible angle, as you can see.

I was processing these images this morning, and they weren’t coming out quite as I wanted.  They were a little too dark, but if I boosted the light tones they became too hard and contrast-y.  After a bit of experimentation, I duplicated the original layer and set the blend mode to Screen, then increased the transparency to about fifty percent.  The last one was done a little differently; with that one, I added some Gaussian blur to the duplicated layer and I didn’t increase the transparency at all.  It’s given a very soft, high-key effect that I’m quite pleased with.  All were taken using the Lensbaby – by default, as I don’t have anything else that will do macro.

Seedhead 8

Seedhead 2

Seedhead 3

Seedhead 1

Seedhead 5

Seedhead 4

Seedhead 7

Moments are like bubbles

Autumn bench

One of the delights of my day is to read the daily poem that’s delivered to my inbox.  Samantha Reynolds at bentlily.com somehow manages not just to write a poem a day, but to write a good poem a day.  How does she do that?  Not everyone’s into poetry, I know, but hers are very accessible and always manage to say something that makes you think or smile.  And they’re short – always a plus point in a poem, even of the best kind. This one is about taking photographs.  Let’s read and discuss:

Why I took so few photos

He stands pressed against the window
naked except for a pair of red mittens
pointing to the crows
flapping his arms
and repeating over and over


I think several things simultaneously

he is perfect
I wonder when he will learn a word other than duck
people can probably see him from the park

then as I so often do
I think to get my camera
but don’t

and when he asks later
why there aren’t more photos of him
I will tell him how moments are like bubbles
you have to stay very still
or they will burst.

I sometimes think that while photography opens your eyes to the world and makes you see it better and appreciate it more, sometimes it can stop you being fully in the experience.  Occasionally I put my camera down and simply take in the moment, before it bursts like a bubble – but perhaps not often enough.  Do you?

Lens or dog? – no contest


I made a little mention in my previous post of the camera lens being used as a phallic symbol.  Curious about this, I did a Google search and found that Susan Sontag had been there before me, but I also came across the following exchange in a well-known photography forum:

“Just rented the 500 f4 and carrying it around some nature centers in Florida, I often notice a slew of admiring glances from comely women. Since I’m 72 and past whatever prime I had, I cannot help but think that the 500 is some sort of phallic symbol that is eliciting this ogling. So now I’m thinking of getting a glass-less 500 which would have the desired effect (although I’m not sure why I would want this effect or what at my age I’m supposed to do about it) and also would be cheaper and lighter. Since my photos with the glassed 500 are not so great anyhow (damn, it’s heavy), I wouldn’t be missing anything.”

He got this reply:
“A Golden Retriever is a lot cheaper and works even better. They’ll come over and pat your dog and start up a conversation. The 500 won’t soil your lawn, however.”
(The photo is of my lovely old Golden Retriever  – long passed away – as a puppy; taken way before I was into photography, so it’s a bad photo but I think you’ll agree he was a very cute puppy.)

The King’s Speech: film, music and emotion

The other night we watched a DVD of ‘The King’s Speech’. Throughout the film Bertie – unwilling King after his brother abdicated – struggles with a stammer and the need to make frequent public speeches.  He’s eventually helped by a very unorthodox voice therapist and in the final scene, he has to give a speech anouncing Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, with Logue (his voice teacher) in the background silently coaching and encouraging him.  It’s a touching scene, and the background music is a piece I’ve always loved – Beethoven’s 7th Symphony, 2nd movement.  Putting aside the irony of using music by a German composer in this context, it’s made me ponder about music and about film on a number of levels.

If you saw a film with and without the music, it would surely be two different experiences, and that makes me wonder if the lack of sound in still photography is one of its drawbacks (or one of its advantages?).  Although I know very little about music and wouldn’t consider myself any kind of enthusiast – in the sense of buying loads of CDs, going to concerts, and so on – I do find it affects me on a very deep emotional level.  Often, when I leave a film, it’s the ‘background’ music that stays with me, long after my memories of the film itself have faded.

Although this is surely true of many people, there are many others who don’t even seem to notice the music used – my husband, for example, rarely registers the music and he’s much more of a music enthusiast than I am.  There is a possible explanation for this: if you’ve ever studied or read anything about NLP, you’ll know that we process our experiences through our senses and that one of these senses is usually dominant in any one person.  (of course, we use all of them, but we tend to favour one in particular)  Taste and smell are difficult to work with, so NLP limits things to the three major sensory channels: visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic (feel/touch).   Unsurprisingly, given my passion for photography, my dominant sense is visual, with auditory some way down the scale.  However, Dawna Markova wrote about how the less dominant sensory channels can access our unconscious and our emotions more easily – it’s as if they have a direct path in there, without having to be sifted through our intellect or consciousness.

It may be this that creates such a strong link for me between emotion and music. The day after I saw the film I thought I’d like to hear this piece of music again but without the associated scene.  I found it on Youtube and clicked play.  Suddenly and without warning, tears were streaming down my face.  For a few moments I couldn’t understand what was going on, but then I remembered that at the time I’d first discovered this piece of music I was deeply unhappy in a difficult marriage, but one that I hadn’t completely given up hope on yet.  The music has always sounded like a combination of huge sadness overlaid with hopefulness to me, and this is what I felt at the time.  I’d played it then, over and over and over again, and hearing it now was vividly bringing back the abyss of unhappiness I was falling into at the time.  There are other pieces of music that act similarly on me: for example, I love Philip Glass but find his music so disturbing, in some way that I can’t articulate, that I simply can’t play it very often.  In this instance it isn’t linked to any particular experience, there’s just something about the music that gets to me.

Going off at a slightly different tangent, the video I found on Youtube enthralled me in a different way again. It’s a graphic version of the music that creates visuals of each instrument and note.  I’ve never been able to read music, although I tried to learn many times, but seeing it made visual in this way gave me an appreciation and understanding of this piece that I never had before.  It seemed to me I could ‘read’ it in a way I never managed with traditional notation, although obviously traditional music notation is visual too (and, in fact, imparts more information than this format does).  I’ve always found I need something visual in order to be able to listen properly; if I try to listen to a radio talk my mind just wanders off on its own path and I miss most of it.  But give me a related image or chart or something to look at while the talk is going on, and I can keep my attention on it.

Getting back to photography, something I’ve seen suggested more than once is to put on headphones and play music while you photograph, allowing the music to guide you in any way that feels right.  I’ve never tried this, but it would be an interesting exercise to play several different types of music while photographing in the same place, and compare the results.  We often rather foolishly try to separate out the senses when we talk about them, but in fact the input from each sense strongly influences the others.  Still photography lacks sound, and usually, tactile presence, limiting its input to one sense only.  Does this also put limits on its power to affect us?