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This month I drove north to Lake Copeton. This is a man made lake near Inverell in the New England region.  A dam, completed in 1976,  was thrown across the Gwydir River to impound water to meet the needs of the towns and agricultural activity west out onto the northern plains of this state.  Cotton is the main consumer of this water. At bankful stage the Copeton Dam holds three times the water of Sydney Harbour. We stayed at Copeton Waters State Park and Recreational area located on the southern margins of the lake.

This trip was important to me for three reasons:

1. I was meeting up with folk from Port Macquarie with whom I have worked/presented workshops to and the like over the last 6-7 years.

2. The promise of friendship, fellowship was an enticing prospect as I was going to be working with Rob Smith who knows the area well, has a wonderful knowledge, rapport and empathy with the lake and its ecology. He is an expert on long exposures at night; light painting and use of ND filters to achieve log exposure effects. He would teach me     a good deal about these techniques.

3.The week would allow me to continue my transition from studio work that has been a major feature of my photographic practice over the last 30 years back to my initial love affair with landscape.

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 The drive north along the New England Highway saw the landscape signal the impact of drought.  North through Singleton, Muswellbrook on to Tamworth was brown parched by the drought or poor winter rains. The last 100 km included a crossing of the Gwydir, which was a mere trickle. I was not surprised then when arriving at the Copeton State Park and Camping centre to discover the dam was only 20% full.

This circumstance was to inject fabulous opportunities for photography. The lake was dominated by the emerging tree, rock and sandy formations of the many bays and inlets that were now revealed once more as the water level receded.  The former drowned features now offered absorbing relationships between ridge, water and sky. Drowned trees with their skeletal shapes, bleached granite tors glowed in the light, reflections of ridge and cloudscapes turned the dark surface of the lake into a mirrored pattern of disorientation and mystery.

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Our days were long. Out at pre-dawn to a selected site and then back to base for breakfast, a snooze and then preparations for the afternoon and evening workout. There were about eight in the group and we each went our separate ways so as to avoid shooting in each other’s tripod holes. Rob mentored each of us on using his special skills and experiences as well as local knowledge. We did have visits from people in Inverell who came to chat and check our progress.

Moving from one shooting site to another  over the 4-5 days we disturbed feral goats, emu, pigs and kangaroo. The bird life too was impressive in sky, on land and on water.

Some folk used the middle of the day to go fishing. I have to say as fishermen, they were clearly great photographers. One insisted on wearing pink, magenta and or purple trousers that seem to hover between waist and knees. He wore this outfit whilst fishing and wondered why he did not get a bite. The fish would take one look at who was on the other end of the line and dive deep. A redeeming feature of purple pants was his capacity to make a curious concoction from vodka, rum and sundry left overs. In the middle of a chilly night it worked a treat although made focussing difficult!!!!

I enjoyed the evening shoots where we worked from the golden hour well into the night when stars dominated the sky ever so clear and vibrant. In fact, so clear the nightlight, so dark the waters that I saw star reflections on the surface of the water for the first time.  Fascinating. Astrophotography became the main game, late at night when the Milky Way, covered in  part by scudding cloud or accompanied by lightning, would offer sublime majesty.  Not content with simply photographing the Milky Way Rob led us on a light painting attack on distant ridges, trees and rock outcrops. It was a delight to watch someone who can blend prodigious skills, with patience and generosity of idea and process. We all learned a good deal about the art of light painting and its inclusion within long exposures of the night sky. This was a totally new experience for me as a large format monochrome landscape pictorialist – cum – lapsed studio operative.

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The main photographic goals were technique oriented and individually and as a group  we worked on:

  •  Use of ND filters in daylight and night light settings
  • Long exposure techniques
  • Light painting including multi coloured gels
  • Multiple exposures
  • Tripod motion
  • Time lapse with stacking
  • Shutter manipulations
  • Night sky imagery
  • Star trails

As one might expect a wide variety of results were harvested over the week. Some successes, some failures and some do better, next time.

Samples here are just some of the images created. I have much still to learn of these approaches to pictorial landscape work using the 14-24mm Nikkor lens and heavy ND filtration.

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I believe we are going back to Copeton in the “dark” of March 2016.  I look forward to it for the fellowship and shared fun of image discovery. The latter was enhanced by a couple of sessions late evening of show and tell where images made were displayed via digital projector for folk to study, comment upon or resolve issues they had confronted during the day.

I enjoyed the experience. Rob, Timo and Terry were great companions and Mike and Denise too came along  a little later in the week and helped enrich the festivities. Mike is from Scotland and wanted more mist. Rob wanted birds so he could try out his new sighting system for use with telephoto lens. Timo wanted fish and this was never going to happen whilst wearing his pink trousers.  Terry was happy exploring the early and late light of the golden hour. Mike and Denise wanted night studies of rocks and trees. Des wanted peace and practice. We all achieved our goals.

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In coming weeks and months I intend heading off to other locations for night photography, figure in landscape either painted or projected as well as mastering the art and science of night photography via the light of the moon.

 

 

 

 

 

 

My mother had an Irish heritage. She could tell a good yarn. My dear wife and I looked after mum for the last few years of her life. Like many people of our age we found ourselves with a mother increasingly frail, who would, when one would least have expected it, start to talk about a memory of her long life in a wondrous level of detail. She could recount in great detail the events of a time and place, of people and circumstances back when she was five or 12 and in between but had no recollection of her 50 years of marriage, of the three homes that she and her husband, my father, built as they toiled to give their two boys the education and opportunity denied to them by the Depression.

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Mum was 94 when she died. In the week before she succumbed to the erosive powers of dementia she woke up out of a deep sleep and asked could I, would I, take her back “home”. She meant that place she remembered.  This was a farm, more than 500 kms away from the city and where she spent her childhood in the care of her Irish grandmother and father between 1917 and 1924.  This farm was called Kinvara and was occupied by my mother’s maternal grandparents – the Maguires. A good Irish name on a property named after a village in Ireland.  My mother’s family lived on a neighbouring property.  My mother told stories of walking to Kinvara where she would help her grandparents by carrying water, helping with the washing, the cooking and in the garden.  She liked Kinvara because there were uncles there who treated her kindly and made her laugh and smile. Her sharpest memory towards the finish of her life was the walk across to Kinvara from her home.  She used to carry soup across the paddocks to give to her elderly grandparents. That track has gone, long gone. But the farm is there. The waterhole she spoke about still offers refreshment to the sheep and the cattle, the house dam where her blind uncle swam remains, fed by the spring and the old garden can be seen lost in the overgrowth whilst the peppercorn tree she sat under for shade still stands sentinel-like throwing that shade onto the old house.

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I know all of this this because I did what my mother asked. My wife and I took her ashes back to Kinvara. We were only able to do so because the present owners of the property  (Jo and Mark) when I approached them were so kind and caring. They made our visit pleasant, the task we had to do easier than it might have otherwise have been.

They drove in their vehicle the 5-6 kilometres from their home to the entrance to the property. We followed in our car with Mum’s ashes and the mattock.  I was seeing this property for the first time. As we drove through the gate and approached the house the landscape spread out in front of me came alive with my mother’s vivid description. I could see the farm sheds, the cow bale, the shearing shed and the fence line that once had a track beside it that went across the rolling hills towards Emmaslee and my mother’s home. As we approached the house my wife and I were silent with our thoughts.

Jo and Mark came up to the car and asked us what was it we wished to do. I was at a loss. We discussed briefly some options and then Mark suggested a place. He said that my mother and her siblings when they came to visit their grandparents would have had to pass by the spring or soak just behind the house. We drove over to have a look. It was ideal simply because Mark said this place always had water. He advised that if we placed my mother’s ashes here he would see that a small fence was built and a tree planted to acknowledge the presence of my mother’s remains. What a delightful gesture.

I took out of the car a mattock brought from Sydney and dug a hole in the soft red soil.  Mark, Jo and my wife watched. It was easy work, which was just as well as I could not see particularly well as my mind and heart were filled with sadness but also a sense of closure. The last three years had not been good for Mum despite the love and care given by us all and by the care centre where she lived when her needs required their specialist skills.

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As I dug the hole my dear wife stood by and watched quietly. She had been a wonderful supporter during this time and now here she was to say her private good byes too. What a gem.

Over 500 kms from our home, in an open field covered with the dry grass of late winter, the air sparkling with the chill of a breeze I carefully placed my mother’s ashes where she asked them to be – at Kinvara. Whilst I was doing this Mark wandered off and a few minutes later came back with two saplings. He lashed them together to form a cross and inserted the sharpened end into the soft soil as a symbol and a sign of the occasion. My mother would have liked this very much as it was a genuine and heartfelt gesture and one that did not display any pretension or extravagance. It was a stranger offering her both respect and dignity.

We stood there for a while staring at the disturbed soil. I was lost in thought and Mark broke the silence by asking did we wish to see the interior of the house where my mum would have worked and played and maternal great grandparents I never knew lived. We did this, examining the interior that remained in much the same form as it might have been a hundred years earlier. Living history.

After this visit, Mark and Jo said their goodbyes and encouraged us to stay as long as we wished. We stayed long enough to make a photo record of Kinvara that I could show my daughter and some of my mother’s surviving relatives. We were careful to close the gates!!

What kind and gentle people were Mark and his wife. They had welcomed us into their home, gave us tea and cake, made us feel ‘bush’ welcome. They were bush people. They knew, as did my mother, what it was like to confront the vagaries of weather, pests and unpredictable markets.  Mark, with some pride showed us his new crop of canola put down for the first time on land that was always marginal and required deft skills to manage.  He was as I imagined my mother’s grandparents to have been, tough but sensitive to the needs of the land.

These were tough people, family people who despite the rigours of farming retained that wonderful soft and tender side of humanity. My mother had chosen well her final resting place!

Thank you Mark and Jo.

Now the reader of my blog might well ask what has anything of the above got to do with photography.  Well, it has everything and nothing. When you looked at the images accompanying this blog you would have simply examined them, studied them, soaked up the information that they conveyed. Roland Barthes described this form of image and audience response as studium.  That is, where an image offers you information and facts to absorb – images that make you think but often has little if any emotional dimension.  However, when I look at these images I see something quite different. I see the content and feel emotion. Barthes experienced the same sensation when looking at images of his recently deceased mother and pondered why it was that these images evoked a different reaction to most other images he had observed. His reaction was emotional too, it was subjective, and it was based on experiences with which he could identify with in a very personal sense.  Images that one can relate to at an emotional and experiential level. Barthes called this emotional response by a viewer to an image punctum, that is, the sharp, poignant and evocative hook that a photograph has that can grab you and hold you enthralled, can  shape and sharpen your sentimental response. An image that shakes and shapes what you feel as much as it may what you think possesses punctum. My photographs of mum’s resting place are enriched with punctum for me.

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We can all make images that are rich with studium. Most of our record shots and documentary work is rich with facts, rich with material to study – studium. Some exceptional photographers can advance the audience’s reaction by injecting into an image some content that also triggers emotion or punctum. The goal of effective photography, in my opinion, is to appeal to an audience’s capacity to think and to feel.

So, my mother’s final journey was a lesson in many ways. She was teaching me right to the end.  That would have appealed to her perverse Irish sense of humour.

People who know my work will know that I like deserts. I am attracted to them because of their aesthetics. I like the contour, the texture, the shape, and the form. I like the loneliness. The silence. The desert world is full of colour as it is life. I have been privileged to travel to many desert/arid zones and hope to travel to more later in the year.

I also like working with life models. I see the female figure as a landscape. It too has an aesthetic based on line, shape, curve, pattern, texture and edge and, like the dunes, responds in quite similar ways to the low raking light source. For deserts the best light is the dawn and then twilight with its afterglow. For the life model it is locating them in a light space where the artificial lights of the studio or the ambient light of an outdoor setting is used to reveal or hide, to share and to show, to convey the essential beauty of form in a context where light is the medium of expression and communication.

My first life model was my wife. She was ideal because she understood what I was seeking to do, was patient, possessed a figure that was an extraordinary landscape of shape and form that could be transformed by a simple gesture, by the application of light to convey a wide range of ideas linked to the sensual, the erotic, the sublime, the magic of her beauty.

My early figure work with her was always monochrome as this suited my sense of heightening abstraction and the removal any element that might complicate the idea.

To reduce, to simplify to make abstract were the goals. These remain the essence of effective landscape and, in my case, figure work too.

It was important to me to have the support of my wife this way. She has a fine sense of what is apt, what is effective and knows of my long held connection to the landscape and to the figure. In effect, for me, they are the same genre. Again, I was, at this early stage in my photography, involved with a camera club and needed to prepare work that could stand the test of the competition ethos that prevailed and which at that time I thought was important.  My problem was that to enter what was called somewhat problematically ‘nudes’ was usually greeted with poorly disguised disgust by fellow members. One was made to feel as if one was weird, a deviate or worse as some depraved being with a camera. In short, nudity was frowned upon. You could have nude rocks, nude trees, nude cars, nude flowers, nude frogs or even nude pelicans but you could not have nude human beings. Yet, paradoxically these same folk travelled to many parts of the world and brought back images of ‘natives’ or ‘savages or ‘Indians’ or ‘primitives’ as they called them and these subjects were invariably unclad or partially clad. I saw this latter type of work, at the time, as exploitative, hypocritical, easy and often salacious. Yet, somehow it was accepted whereas a classic, art based nude study of a female was problematic. I think this attitude has a lot to do with poor toilet training!!!!

After many months of experimenting, testing, working my way through technical, aesthetic and compositional issues I decided to enter the next monthly competition with a figure study. It was the figure study reproduced below. The club’s print secretary at the time was a woman. A formidable creature that knew the rules, that delighted in commenting, in a very loud voice, on the work as it was placed on the desk in front of her.  She was empowered to do so by her lofty club status. She was comfortable about scolding or offering self-inspired pronouncements about the chances this image might have over the next as she readied them for display on the easels. Getting past the print secretary was itself an achievement. She was a self appointed assessor. She also offered words of wisdom to the new members, to the nervous, the timid and the ‘know it alls.” Her forthright and formidable manner hid a heart of gold. She would do anything to help a fellow member.

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The club often invited an interstate or international judge to visit on competition nights to appraise work. The competition night came and I entered the obligatory four monochrome prints, the four colour prints and the three slides.  One of these entries was the figure study.  Mrs Formidable –the print secretary – looked at it and just offered a faint smile of condemnation…or…commendation. It was difficult to tell. She could construct and destruct in the one sentence or, with the arching movement of an eyebrow!!

The judge was from Queensland visiting Sydney as a judge for the Sydney International Exhibition of Photography. He was a well-known nature worker and had won many prestigious awards at national and international level.  As I discovered he also liked to go everywhere in bare feet. I did wonder at the time whether there was a connection between his bare toes and his ability to win awards. When he showed up that competition night I felt more comfortable. A judge with nude feet ought to be comfortable with an image that was nude everything.

He came to our club with a formidable reputation and left simply as a man with bare feet. He was not a giant of imagery, he was not a martinet nor an arbiter of what was right or wrong. He was no super human with magical or mystical powers. He was just a Queenslander with a broad accent and a broad smile and bare feet – a mere mortal who could see beyond seeing.

He wandered along the panel of monochromes offering his insights. He came to my figure study and paused for what seemed an eternity. You could sense the club crowd tense with expectation, with the silence of speculation, wondering whether that bare – foot Queenslander, nature photographer extraordinaire was quite ready for a figure study known more commonly as a nude. He examined the soft, grainy low-lit print of my wife’s posterior.  The room was silent for a full thirty seconds. He then said, “ This is the best sand dune study I have ever seen.” It won an award! The audience went into howls of laughter and clearly were bemused at what they thought was my discomfort.

The print secretary was speechless for one of the few times in her club life. I was delighted to win an award as the club, at that time, had some of the strongest and most successful monochrome workers in camera club country.

I was delighted right up until I realised I then had the task of explaining to my wife upon returning home exactly what had happened. This was not a great experience. As always my wife was keen to know how I “went”. On this occasion she too had a stake in the outcome. “ How did my bum go?” she asked, busily making the evening post club snack.

I began, “Dear, he thought you were a sand hill,” I said.  My photographic life went down hill from there. Clearly, supper was not going to happen.

I cannot print her comments.  Suffice to say it was creative, expressive and audience based. Thankfully, she continued to model for me and we made lots of sand dunes. It was as rewarding as it was encouraging. So much so, I have taken many models to the dunes here and overseas to develop and extend the sympathetic aesthetic of female contours within and against the natural contours of the dunes adjacent. Or, I have worked on these ideas within the studio. All of this work started with this image,  “the best sand dune study I have ever seen,” as claimed by the Hobbit from Queensland.

The judge’s comments were rich in meaning for me, as he had alerted me to the four pillars of creativity in photography. His comment, innocent and positive as they were might have been dismissed, as simply, “Oh, he did not get it.” But, I think he was right. He found in the image something quite inherent and which I had taken for granted because it was my intuition to see the figure as a landscape. This judge saw my intuition in this work. The image was a success because it possessed the four pillars of creative expression. The judge had nailed it. I thank him for his insight.

For me, the four pillars are:

  1. The idea or concept that prompted the intention in making the image. That is, the subject which usually comes from my imagination.
  2. Its interpretation – how might that idea – this subject – be conveyed from the many options available. You have choices in photography. You do not have to imitate!
  3. Its representation – what content and technique will be enjoined so as to empower the vision imagined and ensure that the content reveals what was intended.
  4. Its voice – does the image communicate with audience? What visual language is used to convey thought and practice.

I resolved then to focus always on these four relationships thanks to the bare foot judge.

Over the many years since, and despite a letter from a club member telling me to “abandon the nudes, stick to landscapes as that is what you do best” ringing in my ears I have continued to work with figure and much more. My wife remains as supportive as always and helps the models in so many ways so as to make their contribution to my art congenial. For this I am most grateful.  Without her support I would be….lost.

Stairs are a blight on the human condition…well, on those that do not have a strong body at least.

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When travelling or simply wandering aimlessly across the landscape here or abroad I seem to confront stairs everywhere. I never noticed them once.

 

Now, I have discovered that you cannot move without being required to climb, descend, walk along, teeter, slip, slide or wobble your way over, stairs.  They are everywhere. Some stairs make you dizzy, others elicit a wheeze; some stifle conversations and most require a heads down and pain filled silence as you surmount this obstacle hoping to see something worthwhile on the other side. I have found stairs in the most darkened of alleys, the most illustrious of promenades and within temples, towers, churches, steeples, castles, museums, hotels and sundry vantage points.  The B&B industry of the UK specialises in stairs narrower than one’s suitcase or backpack.  Once, in Paris, a hotel, on the Left Bank, offered the option of stairs or an elevator to your room. The elevator was the size of a telephone booth. It could take you or your luggage but not both. The strategy was to fill the elevator with luggage and hightail it up the three flights of stairs to retrieve the luggage. Not good.

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Stairs, by and large, are no longer useful.

 

I once took a group of students to China and the itinerary offered a visit to a memorial built on the side of a mountain. It was at the top of just 800 stairs. In Malaysia there is a religious shrine within a cave – the Batu Cave. Someone forgot to tell us that the cave was up on the side of a hill and required a saunter of 600 steps or more, crowded by zealots and hawkers attempting to sell trinkets with religious enthusiasm.  Even the Great Wall of China cannot be walked along without first zigsagging  (oops zagging) up flights of stairs to gain access to the top of the wall. The most impressive feature of all of these iconic places was that I reached them in the first place. Stairs do not facilitate, they frighten.

 

Sometimes the presence of stairs reflects a wicked sense of humour. Once, as a special treat students and I were taken to a temple in Loyang. It was winter and we wore four or five layers of clothing complete with a padded blue Mao jacket and fur trimmed military style hat. The guide offered his ‘foreign friends’ the opportunity to climb the tower –a round tower not unlike a chimneystack but covered with dragons and complex stone patterns. We were promised a great view of the ice-covered landscape. Problem. The group had to climb single file, inside the wall, so narrow were the stairs. Moreover, it soon became apparent that we were in a dark spiral of stairs that wound their way round the edge of this tower, so that at any one time the lead student was some 10-15 metres above, out of sight on the other side of the column and out of earshot. The stairs became narrower and narrower the further we advanced. With five layers of clothing the lead student soon became stuck. She could not advance nor could she retreat because of the folk following her who simply came to a halt waiting patiently for the chance to move forward again.  Eventually the entire group came to a halt threaded round the staircase, in the dark, and most incapable of turning round because of the combination of clothing and the confined space. The students could not move forward or back as the latter required negotiation with a series of students behind and out of view. I brought up the rear and was next to useless – a condition I specialize in. Instructions, advice, comment was transmitted by word of mouth from one stuck student to the next until it reached the lead student who in turn relayed a response – most of these responses were unladylike.  We only saved ourselves (the guides were smoking in the bus) by walking back down the stairs in reverse – holding hands with stuck student at the front compelled to slowly take off her outer jacket and extricate herself that way. From Loyang to Wuhan that day the bus was very silent. I think the discarded jacket is still in situ. Stairs!!

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On another visit to Beijing our guide took us to the old city with its shops, temples and godowns. We were encouraged off the bus and into a shop given over to that most wonderful craft of tailoring. There were bolts of cloth in serried ranks for us to admire. The host went behind the counter and drew back a green curtain to reveal a very sophisticated electrical switchboard. He pulled a lever and the counter slowly slid across the floor with a merry whine of motors to reveal a three metre wide set of marble steps that went steeply down through the basement and underground. We were to descend these steps only to confront a very thick metal door that hissed open with the fresh damp underground air escaping to bathe our faces. These stairs were giving us entry to the underground city of Beijing. The ‘dig tunnels, store grain’ mantra of Mao was translated here as a sophisticated nuclear shelter that could house many thousands of Beijing citizens if ever that city was attacked by their then enemy – Russia. It was a network of steps and stairs. If the Russians did not get you then the winding steep step and stair filled passages would. What a day that was!  My students and I were stunned by the complexity of this facility and its many kilometres of passages and stairs. My legs ached, as did my heart at the futility of it all. Stairs can reveal.

 

Some of the most sacred places visited have so many steps that you soon invoke the good Lord’s name for help as you struggle to reach the apex of stairs that wind, zip, soar and cling to the sides of these edifices.  A special treat is to climb up the inside of the dome of the Duomo in Florence. Well, actually you climb up the dome’s exterior surface wedged between the exterior arches and the surface of the dome itself. The higher you go the narrower and more tilted the stairs become – it is like climbing up the outside of a bowl … occasionally, there is a peephole which allows you to peer into the cathedral spread out below you. You are supposed to feel like you are close to heaven. I have news for the folk who wrote the brochure. It was Hell. Great view from the top though!

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No visit to the Arc de Triomphe is complete without the vista of the Champs-Élysées only to be revealed by climbing serious steps to reach its top. Little wonder it is called the Arc de Triomphe. You feel triumphant just to get up there with Paris spread out across your wide-angle eyeballs. The French have a Gallic knack with stairs. Have you walked in the streets of Montmartre?  Stairs.  Here there are even stairs designed to allow cars to climb up and into impossible parking positions. There are stairs to survey Paris from the turrets of Notre Dame. More stairs at the Eiffel Tower. Our apartment in Paris was on the third floor. It was a building that was old in the 18th century when much of Paris was rebuilt. It had a stairway to rival those found at Versailles and they linked the former stables to the level where our apartment was located complete with its own internal set of stairs and steps so that a simple walk from kitchen to bathroom to bedroom required one to climb, teeter and descend on multi occasions each day. Night time movement in search of the toilet was adventurous to say the least.

 

A brief visit to the Greek islands culminated in climbing on and about Santorini. This scenic relic of a fabled Atlantis built on the edge of a caldera is known for its beauty, its cats, its dogs, fine food and superbly presented whitewashed dwellings punctuated by glorious dashes of blues, pinks and greens on doors, walls and window shutters. This majestic setting is linked by…..steps.  There are millions of them running along but mostly up and down the edge of a dormant volcano. The steps end either at water’s edge or in the sky. Santorini is best viewed by helicopter as a day climbing the steps leaves you with blurred focus, sore knees, gross pain in every limb and related muscles. It makes a visit to one of the many local bars mandatory. Perhaps that is the plan.

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We have experienced the underground train system in many cities –London, Paris, Montreal, Madrid, Barcelona and New York all noteworthy for the quality and number of ways one can climb stairs. Grand Central Station, NYC, I am sure is only ‘grand’ because of the stairways that guide, sort and funnel commuters into their respective carriages.

 

The most modern transport systems in the world rely on stairs. Have you ever been in a plane that has landed at some modern centre only to find there is no skybridge?  Rather, you are offered a set of stairs built as a tower, made of metal and on wheels. Someone has trundled this monstrosity out to the 400 ton, $500 million dollar aircraft where the final metres of the journey require you to negotiate the hell on wheels that is the rickety set of stairs at the back of the plane. Pure inspired genius. You should get frequent flyer points just for the stairs alone.

 

Genius is evident too on the ramparts of many castle walls where the stairs are intended to prevent attackers from climbing up walls because they must negotiate the ‘murdering port’ or the stairs. These must have been deadly zones.  The same stairs also prevented the defenders from leaving their posts and retreating as the stairs, without balustrades, and as slippery as one can create, represented a greater danger than does the enemy. Stand and fight or face the stairs, might have been the rallying cry.

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Stairs, in short, are not good. They can be superb visual statements though. Some allow for the promenade of the beautiful and the powerful people and are positioned in such a way as to ensure that all the lesser mortals may gaze upon the favoured who must negotiate the stairs with aplomb and ceremonial seriousness. Think Vatican, think National Assembly in Habana, think Forbidden City in Beijing or its competing stairs of the Peoples Palace in Tiananmen Square, think Rialto Bridge in Venice or the towers of the Gaudi masterpiece Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Europe is filled with stairs that take you up, down, round, over and through.  Each beckons with the promise of an image at the end of the torture.

 

However, stairs can be convenient places to sit. I sit often. I can recall very satisfying stairs to sit on along the banks of the Seine, the edge of the Thames, the curving pathway of Farm Cove and the last vantage point at Arles when waiting for the bullfight.

 

Very few stairs are really memorable. These are a necessity built in times past when there was no other option. Much of each day of our recent trip to Europe was spent stair climbing. In fact, you cannot see Europe without steps and stairs. Granada in Andalucía is ‘stair central’ and to visit the Alhambra demands steep, windy walks interspersed with stairs to torment and torture the tourist – particularly those laden with camera gear. Our next photo exploration will be somewhere flat. This is a rite of passage earned and to be celebrated.

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There is a lot to recommend a visit to the centre of Australia where one can go for 500-700 kilometres in a day and the only stairs you face are those up, into and out of the truck. A flat land can have its advantages. Europe is for the young. The ancient lands of the Middle East and East Asia are not for the ancients but for the young.

 

Took me a while to work this out.

 

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Many years ago I went on a photo safari with a group of people who claimed they were photographers. Our journey, to last eight weeks, commenced in Sydney and was to go to Darwin via Cameron’s Corner, up the Birdsville Track, along sundry, obscure scars on the landscape that were called roads, into Boulia, down the Plenty Highway, up the Stuart Highway and then along the Carpentaria Highway, one of the most boring roads on this planet. We were headed towards Borroloola, a small settlement on the edge of the vast swamps that bordered the Gulf, and a ‘back’ way into Kakadu.  This little settlement was not that far from where Burke and Wills reached the coast on their fateful journey across the continent.

Our journey across the continent was fateful too but conducted with greater comfort and safety.  As you are about to read, the fateful nature of the trip surfaced on the road north across the Barkely Tableland.

As we turned northeast onto the Carpentaria Highway, little did I realise this was to become a life changing and sight-changing event. It was soon clear that the Barkly Tableland was having a good season. The landscape consisted of bright yellow grassland, natural pasture that was in most places a metre high and quite uniform in appearance as it spread as far as the eye could see. This bright, yellow grass seemed unending and spoke to the vastness of the cattle country of the Northern Territory.  However, this flush of growth was misleading. Not for many years had the feed for cattle been as plentiful as we were to see that day. The landscape was an eloquent statement to the potential this country had for cattle if water could be regulated and available year in and year out.

These were questions/issues to ponder as our bus and its intrepid crew of Nikons and Canons trawled north in the company of two four-wheel drive support units.

It was hot for August. The sky was blue, bright blue. No clouds. Our bus suddenly became quite small, lost in a sea of yellow crowned by a blue that dazzled the eye and dulled the senses. Every now and again a small cluster of black cattle punctuated the monotony of the yellow grass, their heads looking up and over the feed to see what it was that broke their reverie. The cattle showed little expression; they just ate. Vivid yellow, black and blue with only the grey-brown of the road to break the array of saturation rampant.

The road was straight and flat and the slight undulations set up a rhythmic beat that was both hypnotic and gentle. At times it seemed the bus just floated. I feared for the driver’s capacity to concentrate, to keep alert in this setting designed to make the mind wander, the eyes glaze, the breathing to slow down to slumber. After all, just how many kilometres of blue sky, yellow grass and an occasional cow one take in a day that commenced six hours ago and with at least four more to go before we reached the next camp site. The bus’s occupants soon fell into their own hypnotic state having attempted to find a image or two from the bus during the first half of the journey, only to come to the numbing realisation there weren’t any to be found. The landscape was empty, not a tree, not an anthill – nothing punctuated the horizon. We had reached the middle of flat earth.

Our bus had become a travel capsule hurtling at speed across a landscape that spoke of myth, of country, of timelessness. Travel gear, camera bags and sundry clothing strewn across the backs of seats and on top of the luggage stored in the back surrounded the dozen of us. It was clear we were all lost in our thoughts. Silence prevailed.

It was about then that I realised an emergency was surfacing. The day was already long, it was hot, the glare from the sun in the middle of this day was blinding, the stillness of the passing landscape had become a blur, and we had not stopped for four numbing hours. We did not look like stopping as the driver (dear friend) once behind a wheel, would not, could not stop. He liked to drive to the end of the earth. I needed a pee.

I looked at my fellow photographers. None looked the slightest bit interested in a pee. In any event there was not a tree to offer privacy to be seen. Most of the bus were in a trance. Even the Nikon owners.

What was needed was a strategy. I had to get this bus to stop and to stop, now!

“ I can see a photo,” I cried out.

This strangled and plaintive claim sent a charge of electricity through the vehicle. People sat bolt upright and glanced out the window to the side, to the front and within. It was clear by the expressions on their faces that they saw nothing they had not seen for the last four hours or so. Looks of surprise changed to querulousness and then to cries of protest hurled at me for breaking into their Zen-like state.

The driver was engaged in a curious pantomime of simultaneously changing gears, putting on the brake, talking on the CB radio to the escort vehicles whilst at the same time staring into the rear view mirror to see what was the cause of my demented wail. The bus slowly came to a halt. As it did I grabbed some of the clothes set out to dry. A pair of jeans, a bright hat, a red top.

“ Quick,” I cried, “grab your cameras,” and leapt from the bus onto the gravel edge of the road. I raced to the back of the bus ahead of the crowd.

I set about spreading the clothes onto the baking surface of the road that stretched in a straight line, in either direction for miles towards the hazy horizon.

“Here is a prize winning shot,” I claimed pointing to the flattened shrunken, human like figure I had constructed in my pee-filled state.  It was clear folk were delighted at the thought of a gong in the next competition as they blazed away shooting this figure set out on the road and just beyond the shadow of the bus. Quickly, I grabbed my camera (a Nikon) and went to the front of the bus. I was alone. I was sheltered. I had one of the best pees in my life. It was a noteworthy record – making epic of an effort. It was worth a gong, itself.

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I returned to the rear of the bus with my smile returned.

“Right,” I continued, “let me make some images too now that you have all finished. And, by the way, this image is copyright and I own it.”

The comments, even Nikon owners made, do not bear repetition here.

It was a great strategy intended to get a pee but, it was one of the early lessons in the importance of ‘making’ an image rather than merely ‘taking’ what the camera might see.

Imagine my dilemma when, for months later, I would go to camera clubs to judge their competitions only to find the image I had constructed, out of tired clothing so I could have a pee, was one of the entries. They always got a gong!

We all have strategies.

 

Monument Valley is a well-known physical and cultural landscape that straddles the border between Arizona and Utah. It is a centre of deep significance to the Navajo who occupy this area as part of the Navajo Nation lands of the south west of the USA. It is near the Four Corners region and about a 1000 image drive from Antelope Canyon to the west and Goosenecks Park to the northwest! It is an image rich region.

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I have travelled to Monument Valley on a number of occasions. I find it a compelling location of grandeur imbued with a special sense of place for those who live there.

The area is a mecca for tourists, for travellers in search of the unique ‘monuments’ that dominate the skyline of this valley. It is a ‘must see’ experience for the landscape photographer.

 

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The Monument has attracted the film industry as it offers an ideal location for the making of many classical John Ford style Hollywood westerns.  From the 1930’s through to the present day it has been commonplace to see a film crew at work. During an early visit one of the Back to the Future films was being made and so part of the valley was out of bounds.  On previous visits I had stayed at Kayenta or at Mexican Hat. My accommodation on this trip however was at Gouldings Lodge and campground located near the entrance and about a ten-minute drive to the Monument headquarters.

This place put me in the centre of the action at sunrise and sunset.  Gouldings was noteworthy for its association with the filmmaking industry and their stars and to its collection of memorabilia linked to the western films it helped make through the provision of a wide range of services.

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When staying at Gouldings three significant experiences helped shape who I am today. Firstly, it was here that I received a ‘phone call from the university – my employer –  informing me that, following a change in governance and a new academic structure, the various Deans of Faculty or Schools were to be appointed at professorial level. This was wonderful news. I speculated, during this long distance chat that I might well be the only academic promoted to professorial rank whilst on a telephone staring at the wild west landscape of John Wayne movie fame or that depicted with the Looney Tune cartoon genre. In either case they offered a certain symbolic relevance to this promotion. Secondly, I was able to do some teaching –some volunteer teaching, in one of the Navajo community elementary schools.  Here I had the chance to share information about Australia, my home city of Sydney, Aboriginal Australian societies and the joys and delights of Australia’s fauna and flora. I enjoyed the teaching in the reservation schools even though it took me away from the main game, which was to make my version of the iconic places that Monument Valley has to offer the photographer.  Thirdly, whilst teaching I met a Navajo who was to be my guide. Who’s task it was to protect me and to take me to parts of the Monument that were usually off limits to any person other than members of the local Navajo community. This gesture was in recognition of the fact that I had done some volunteer teaching. It was a way for the Navajo to say thank you.

 

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I met Michael late one afternoon and he said, pointing to his jeep, we are going to see a butte named after his grandfather. This we did. We drove over a series of side roads heading west for an hour or so to what I sensed was the edge of the Monument. We parked at the foot of a large outcrop of burnt orange slick rock (aptly named).  It was the base of a mesa. Michael pointed to a slight groove in this slippery surface and advised that this was the track. It seemed very vertical heading off towards the blue sky rapidly taking on the golden hues of the twilight hours.

“We will have to hurry,” he said looking pointedly at my Sinar 4 x 5 camera and tripod and my 135mm camera bag. He took both from me and said, “Follow me”.

Easier said than done. The track was super slippery as the talcum powder grains of the slick rock broke and gave way under your weight. There was no rail, no signage, and no steps. Just a groove in slick, slippery rock. Once again I was reminded why Navajo were prized workers on New York skyscrapers in the 1890’s-1940’s. They seem to have absolutely no fear of heights and their confidence on steep side slick rock outcrops is awesome. I tentatively followed Michael who had to stop on a number of occasions, drop the load he was carrying and come back 20-30 metres to help the tiring teacher from Oz surmount an obstacle –usually a slight change in slope.

 After what seemed an endless nightmare of gasping, shuffling, slipping and terror and, as the jeep became a toy model on the desert floor of the Monument,  we reached the top. Michael then advised it was now easy and we only had about a half-mile to walk !

 By now the sun was low –about 50 minutes from dipping over the horizon.

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Eventually we reached the prized vantage point known to Navajo and now shown to me a privileged visitor. The panorama was a breathtaking mix of mesa, butte, sand dunes and dry canyons linked by the green of trees that somehow managed to survive by tapping into the underground water of the stream zones.

Michael sat down and closed his eyes and began a trance-like rest encouraging me to work and make photographs. This I did. It was not long before I had exposed the 20 double darks I had with me and moved to 135 and a series of lens changes. I worked as quickly as the twilight chill allowed thankful I had worn thick socks, two pairs of jeans and gloves.

Throughout the 90 minutes of photography I had assumed, once finished,  Michael would take me round the corner of the rock outcrop nearby and there would be a second vehicle with one of his friends waiting to drive us down to the valley floor and to his jeep. Um…err…hmm…this was naive.

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As I packed up the gear the last of afterglow waned and we plunged into desert blackness. Michael once again, picked up the gear and beckoned me to follow. To my rapidly growing sense of fear and trepidation we were returning the same way we had climbed. Sure enough Michael’s now faint outline disappeared over the edge of the rock face and began to descend. I could hear him, barely see him or the $20,000 worth of camera gear he was balancing on his shoulders. He seemed to go down slope as fast as he went upslope. This was not the case for me. I walked up but using my profound sense of outdoor hiking skills, years of wandering in and through the Australian outback, many journeys into the Australian bushland, sundry bushwalks and hikes I sank to my backside and promptly slid down a sacred Navajo rock formation on my posterior. Only two layers of jeans separated me from slick rock.

 At one stage, informed by abject terror, I called out to Michael did he have a torch. He said no as he did not need one but thought he had one in the jeep. Great.

After a rapid descent of about an hour and, using the headlights of the jeep Michael had kindly switched on having reached safety some serious minutes before me, I hit the desert floor covered in dust, embarrassment and a profound sense that I had just survived a very special personal and photographic adventure.

 I prepared to get into the jeep where Michael had already packed the gear so that it was safe against the rough and tumble of the hour or so drive back towards the glow of his community that was starting to etch its way into the evening sky.

 I dusted off my jacket, jeans and boots as best I could.

 Then my life ended.

 As I dusted off,  my hands went across the back of my jeans to the hip pocket where my wallet was located. It was not there! It was gone along with my credit cards, license and photo of my wife and daughter.

 

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I cried out involuntarily to Michael. With anguish I said Michael I have lost my wallet. I can still remember his noble face, framed by black Stetson, long black hair and white neck beads illuminated by the glow of the interior lights of the jeep. His face transformed in front of me. No longer was he a modern Navajo with three university degrees from Stanford, who spoke three European languages as well as the language(s) of his  tribal heritage. He looked at me, then up to the black shape of the rock only metres away but where no detail was discernable because of the intense darkness of the early evening.  He became intent, eyes fixed, nostrils flared slightly to create the face of the noble warrior. He grabbed the torch saying,  “Stay here, I thought I heard a slap on the way down. It was a funny noise”. He asked where was I when I stopped slipping and sliding and stood up. I told him what I thought was the correct answer. That was where he heard the slap he said wait here and, having grabbed the torch, he walked off into the abyss of darkness.  After a few minutes, broken only by the sound of him climbing, the torch came on and I watched it jump, swing and bounce its light from rock to slope and back again. About ten minutes went by…it seemed like an eternity. My trip was over I thought. There was no way I could last another six weeks without the personal resources left somewhere on Clay’s Mesa. How could I have been so stupid! My self-indulgent misery ended when Michael called out, “Found it.”

 Within a few minutes he was back. He gave me the wallet and to my profound embarrassment said,

“Does it contain money?

“Why yes”, I replied.

“Well count it, make sure it is all there,” he asked quietly.

“Michael, why would I do that? I have placed my life in your hands today? Why would I seek to now insult you by counting the contents of my wallet you have just found?”

Michael explained, in a whisper etched with sadness,  “ White people do not trust Indians”.

 I said I would only open the wallet if he would accept as a gift of gratitude all the money it contained. He declined telling me to get into the jeep exclaiming I was not white, I was an Aussie who reminded him of the Aussie soldiers he met when serving in Vietnam! They had trusted him as I had done.

 I cried inside as we wandered assuredly back to the lodge. Occasionally, I looked across towards him, his face illuminated by the lights of the dashboard. He was smiling.

 Michael was a great teacher, a gifted soul and a superb ambassador for his people.

 I slept well, that night, back in the safety of Gouldings.

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Modern Habana is a city of paradox, of perplexing combinations of wealth and poverty, of the new and the raw and the old and decayed. It is a city of many smaller communities united by familial links, political allegiances, the presence of church and priest or the tribal loyalties to soccer, baseball and local boxing teams

The city abounds with simple pleasures eked out, rationed because of fifty years of economic sanction that might well have soothed the souls of some members of the international community but have failed to dim the irrepressible spirit to be found in the old centre of the city – of Habana Vieja.

This zone of some thirty urban blocks is the core of the historical Habana, wedged between harbour and the ridgeline to the west where the newer zones are to be found. Habana Vieja is a UNESCO heritage space. It is supposed to be ‘protected’. Its heritage comprises the grand old mansions, office buildings, old churches, convents and schools.  It is the area once dominated by the colonial elite from Spain, the mafia dons from the USA and the corrupt flotsam of the 1930’s – 1950’s Batista era. Interspersed in this vast collection of 1850’s to 1950’s Spanish suburban architecture there is the occasional post 1950’s style art deco driven building established just prior to the revolution. With the advent of Castroism this area, which was claimed by the revolutionaries to be a cultural blight on Cuban society, was given over to public housing. People were drawn to it, or allocated to it, as part of the redistribution process that accompanies any revolution.

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So, for the last fifty years the area has been residential public housing with some low scale vending. It is now public property although there is some evidence that housing projects are beginning to address the decades of neglect. Essentially, a housing project seems to mean transferring people out of the area when a building either collapses or is condemned. It appears to be a rather ad hoc and piecemeal response from the central government with an eye on this inner urban area’s re-development potential as Cuba transitions from a communist planned economic system to a Marxist style exchange system akin to that of China. The latter seems to be very influential in Cuba.

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Since the revolution little has changed, in a physical sense, in Habana Vieja. It is a borderline ruin. Well, to the superficial eye of the fly in and fly out tourist photographer this is most certainly the case.  From my observation such folk are usually preoccupied by the novelty of this space and have the propensity to shape and distort that which they experienced by sundry ‘photo shopping’ of images to a point of visual exhaustion informed by varying levels of creative constipation. The point and shoot brigade can go feral as street after street exhibits the decay of neglect and the real cost of the economic sanctions. Gaggles of ancient cars await the camera with owner-drivers strategically positioned to offer a ride or seek a dollar. Vendors ply their wares and children laugh and play in the streets not really knowing, I suspect, that they are part of a broader geopolitic that gave them a marginalised world to live in.

I cannot be too critical of this penchant for the tourist photographer to ‘grab’ their memory shots, walking down the streets pointing cameras at the quaint, the novel, and the circumstances they cannot ‘see’ at home, and behaving with a crassness that defies description.

To be an effective communicator with any text you, the author, must be aware.  Too often, I feel, the tourist photographer replaces awareness with a sense of urgency to get ‘the shot’ that they can manipulate within the comfort of their home – so far away from this Habana Hell.

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Their trophy photo often seems uninformed by any understanding of the causation at work- of awareness. Of cause and effect. Why it is that Habana is so idiosyncratic.  I have heard them say, “I gave him a dollar and he put the cigar in his mouth, great shot.” Or, “The *&^% kids would not let me take their photograph without a dollar.” Or, “Quick Sam, get the beggar, “ as if the beggar was some escapee from a dystopic movie.

I am guilty myself of succumbing to the excitement and the exhilaration of seeing something new, different or profound and simply trying to document this. In real terms there is nothing wrong with this if that is what you seek to do, to be, to use your craft skills as a photographer. Owning a very expensive camera, state of the art accessories and a specialist digital media suite in one’s home does not make you aware. It does not offer you inspiration or ideas, it will not offer interpretation or aid in effective representation of the imagined vision that a photographer must have to be worthy of that title. Owning a camera does not make a photographer. Vision is critical and vision informed by awareness is vital for effective visual communication.

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However, I want more from my photography than to be just another travel/tourist photographer.  I want to make legacy images – images that are evocative and leave imprinted on the audience a ‘memory’.…..a  visual legacy.

I seek an image that moves the audience to ask the ‘why’, the ‘what’ and the ‘so what’ questions. To make images that provokes both an intellectual and emotional response from the viewer. I do not want to simply point and shoot. That can be done by anybody. I do not want to be an anybody.

If you want an image to evoke intellectual and emotional responses then you as a photographer must also experience them too. You cannot ask your audience to do that which you are not able to do.

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So, walking morning noon and night through Habana Vieja I pondered, what does this place really mean to me?   What does it mean to the visitors sitting in clean and comfortable restaurants just metres from the urban detritus of the Vieja?  What does it mean to the old timers sitting on their doorsteps smoking cigars framed by the shade darken narrow laneways?  Or to the youngsters playing hopscotch in the litter filled streets, their laughter competing with the soft murmur of conversations through open windows and the sound of a distant clarinet speaking the blues.  What was the real story of Habana Vieja? My imperfect answer is in the many images I made but represented by just a few here.

The real story –the real meaning of Habana Vieja was in the walls. The buildings offered a story, an explanation. Their facades, built on the edge of the pavements, revealed a two-century-old narrative of human occupation, of serial exploitation by external and now internal imperial forces. The walls told stories of those that lived behind them, passed by them. They were journals of decay, dearth, denial and decline.

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For the tourist photographer, they were eloquent patterns of line, colour, space and texture. I tried to use my camera to scratch the surface of these walls to reveal their message. What I saw was a warning, a cry and a plea. The walls said,

Take care.

Please help.

Do not let this happen to your world.

Then I had a small drink of Cuban rum and somehow the walls did not matter anymore.

In Habana Vieja all that matters is survival. Get the tourist with the camera before they get you.

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Each Holy Week in Europe there are special festivities to celebrate the passion and death of Christ – the essential Easter story. In Spain this religious holiday is the focus for a weeklong series of liturgical and communal ceremonial processions intended to honour, to celebrate Christian traditions. The processions attract many thousands of observers in cities such as Seville, Granada, Valencia, Toledo and Madrid.

For Easter of 2013 we were in Madrid having driven there from the south of Spain where the Semana Santa festival dominates the cultural and religious life of Seville, Granada and Cordoba.  Easter in Madrid was wet. In fact most of March 2013 was wet – very wet in central Spain.  It was cold too, with icy winds and occasional snow. Happily, the light for much of this month was just grand. Soft, shadow-free, clean with a pearly glow. Ideal conditions for an amphibious photographer!

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The Semana Santa processions in Madrid are by national standards not as grand or as fervent as I am told is the case in other centres. As the national capital I assume it has more important things to do.  Not sure what they could be as frankly, compared with other centres we visited Madrid is simply boring. If it was not for the Prado and a gaggle of art galleries Madrid does not have much to commend it. Well, that was our impression.  Apparently they do have a good soccer team and that could explain a lot!

We canvassed the relevant sources of information about the Semana Santa ceremonies to discover that most of the processions were in doubt because of the rain. Certainly we became aware that two of the bigger events had been cancelled. Then, we discovered a relatively small procession was planned near our accommodation and at a time and place where the rain, if it was to occur the site would allow for considerable shelter. We went and joined the throng. Amazing. Thousands had gathered by the time the music, the statue of the Virgin Mary and the civic and religious leaders had gathered and paraded. A central feature were the penitents in black, green, red or white. Sensible photography was impossible because of the crowds, the pushing, the jostling, the congestion, and the concern for personal safety and for our possessions. Evidently, pickpockets and other wretches flourish in these circumstances.

So, I followed the procession, ducking and weaving, holding camera high and frequently exposing images that were rushed, ill composed and ill conceived and somewhat frantic in collection. It was a scrimmage.  A friend once said to me, “Do not let Christians turn you away from Jesus.” I remembered this advice as I was pushed and shoved by folk carrying various pieces of religious iconography.  There was some truth in my friend’s observation I fear. It was a melee.

Both images have received a significant level of post-production. My fundamental problem was to try and isolate the central penitent from the busy elements caused by crowd, street furniture and the like. So, the main figure was selected and removed to an empty background where I inserted a series of textured layers intended to enhance what I saw as figure that was both sacrificial and a tad sinister. I put one texture in place so as to create the impression that the figure had eyes that looked ahead and to the side. A multi – eyed, all seeing and all knowing but anonymous figure of power. The red was a motif of sacrifice, of blood, of danger of menace. The cross and its symbolism conveyed a sense of sacrifice. The image was cropped to eliminate as much competing material as possible and so have the audience focus on hand and masked face. The penitent, dressed in black, was accompanied by a small girl in virginal white who held tightly to this black-garbed figure’s hand. This was the image that got away….too many people, too much fervent distress, too many people intolerant of the camera.the penitent

I found the whole experience to be one that, whilst it appealed to my sense of occasion, its chaos, rabid chants, processional flavour and related ritualistic movement and blaring music curiously alienating, disturbing, distressing. I guess we all pay homage in different ways according to cultural drivers and related traditions.

The images are better than the memories. I find this often to be the case because, as a conceptual photographer, I find ideas often grow in the telling whereas the actual event captured diminishes as time passes by.

This work and others form part of an exhibition to the theme “homage’ currently being held, until the end of this month at the Incinerator Gallery, Willoughby. This exhibition is shared with three others from the Nebuli group and their work is amazing.

 

 

print-2I have been privileged to specialize in the photography of the female form. This has been a central feature of my photographic, professional and family life.  There has been a succession of models. Most have come to my photography by word of mouth, or by access to a network of family friends.  Some drifted into modelling for me as part of their transition from school to young adulthood having heard of me and my work from their friends. Some asked to model as they saw what I did as compelling, creative and offered them an expressive outlet – a break from the grind of study or as an opportunity to respond to or engage with ideas. The creation of a web site has helped too in attracting interest in my work.
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Again, some models came to work for me simply because I asked them, when I showed them some work and outlined the principles upon which my work was based. Some I wanted to work with saw my work but decided not to do so. It was not for them. A few took their time making a decision. In one instance, close to a decade passed by, before she finally agreed to work with me. The wait was worthwhile.  It was just before Christmas 2012 and we had just met socially. As I was heading off I casually said, “would you like to come and do some work for me in the studio – you will be wearing a mask.” To my surprise and delight, she agreed and the images that were created figured prominently in an exhibition in 2013.  Well worth the wait. _DES8313h

Most of the models have become firm family friends. The studio photography is essentially an outshoot of this connection with family. It is this sense of growing together that is very important for the type of work and the process I follow. I call it incrementalism. That is, we take an idea and over a series of shoots progressively test, review and revise the material until we get close to the previsualised goal – the agreed outcome.  For the most part it is non-threatening and rarely confronting. I cannot do this work; achieve this level of intense collaborative creativity, with one or two studio sessions. The ideas have to be worked. The idea is allowed to evolve. Often, the work is re-visited after a break for a while to see if it has grown.zahrina12-feb17-001

I never photographed any of my students. This would not have been appropriate even though some volunteered to do so.  However, a small number of ex-students with a shared passion for photography came and worked with me, over the years and in various guises.  A smaller number worked with me in the studio long after their student days. By then they had become friends.  They had become the source of inspiration for what I wanted to say with my camera and its studio. Having models that are photo literate as these folk were makes the task so much easier.louise12-jan29-065

The relationship between photographer and model, I am told, can be vexatious. However, this has not been my experience. There have been many models. A small number have stayed with me and explored the art, the craft and the creative dimensions of photography for more than a decade. We have grown up and evolved as people via the camera and the lens. It has been a wonderful journey of mutual discovery and learning. These models became friends of my wife and myself. Long after our shooting life has concluded they remain part of our family. They visit, show or share with us their latest adventure. Some now are married, or, are in a relationship, have children or on the first steps of significant and substantial careers. A number have moved overseas but thanks to the ‘net’ we can keep in touch.

pip07-jan2-089From time to time a model evolves into a special character that moves from simply a photogenic and expressive person to one that contributes to the creative process in diverse and often unexpected ways. When this happens it is a special moment. They are no longer a model, they have become a muse. That is, they become the source of or convey the inspiration for the making of an image. At this point, the studio life evolves from a model expressing and communicating ideas derived from external sources such as myself to one where the source of creativity, of inspiration comes from them. It might be a gesture, an anecdote, a dramatic or special moment in their life, a news event, or an emotional experience they are comfortable sharing.  It can be something as accessible as a piece of music they bring into the studio because it encourages relaxation, movement, expression, gesture or contains audio symbols that become part of an image.  Inspiration can be something as simple as a new hair do, a piece of jewellery, a new dress or a book they are reading that contains material they relate to and seek to share.issy07-feb4-265

What frequently amazes me is the richness of life’s experiences these folk bring to the studio. It is all so different to when I was their age. With few exceptions the models within a few sessions are happy to discuss, negotiate and collaborate about themes, ideas that folk my generation might find confronting or challenging at the very least. I like their openness, their balanced worldview, and their willingness to think through a problem and to experiment with modes and ways of expression until ‘they’ get it right. It is inspiring. The key to this is trust. Mutual trust. It is about honesty and openness, about not being judgmental, to be prepared to listen, to volunteer an opinion, to exchange or share anecdotes derived from parallel experiences. My studio work with the figure is relational. I could not pursue this work with someone I did not relate to, have a genuine affection for and where there was not a high level of mutual respect. So, it can be hard work, building a rapport. It takes time and effort and consistent respectful communication. Being professional.

Most of my models have been represented in exhibitions here and internationally, some have gone on to do other forms of modelling – usually fashion.  Most have been represented, with their prior agreement on my web site and or workshop material. None of the work is ever exhibited or published without their prior permission. This is very important to me.leila06-nov3-408

A smaller number have taken up photography and at least one of them is a very successful photographer in her own right. She claims she learned all that she needs to know for her professional practice from watching me working with her in the studio and asking a lot of questions!steph07-july5-073w

The muse has this status whether they seek it or not. One of the most rewarding starting points are those models that have seen an image they like and they bring it to the studio to discuss…. this discussion leads on to experimentation, various interpretations and finally a level of expression that bears no relationship to the initial inspiration. The image became the basis for an idea, for the challenge of working through what was intended and then its ultimate representation.My studio life working with the figure is coming to an end. It is time to move on. There are other things to say, to share, and to do. It is not a decision I relish but it is a reality that all good things, really wonderful things must come to an end. Travel beckons once again.sulinna12-feb13-009

However, as I look back on a long career as a photographer, educator and consultant the most joyful moments are those special times in the studio when, often without warning, it all comes together and my muse glows with the inner light of her beauty and her intellect. Serendipity. Precious.

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Windmills play a prominent part in Spanish cultural traditions.  They were essentially made famous by Miguel Cervantes’ book about Don Quixote, a rather eccentric individual who wandered across La Mancha searching for and attempting to revive the age of chivalry. His lady love is Dulcinea del Toboso. Unfortunately she is not aware of Quixote’s affection for her. This seems to me to make any courtship somewhat problematic but then Don Quixote engages in many adventures where the basic feature is his ineptitude, clumsiness or misconception of reality. He is somewhat eccentric, if not delusional, and at one point in this literary epic he famously tilts at windmills believing them to be monsters.

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Cervantes book is part farce, part philosophy and part satire. Ideal really as a metaphor for photography as it seems to me that to be an effective photographer one has to accept an element of farce, a rich dose of philosophy and most certainly be prepared to poke fun at the world in general and oneself in particular.

So it was that we set off from Madrid to discover Quixote’s monsters – the moulins or windmills of La Mancha. I must observe that I was not as much influenced by the tale of Don Quixote as I was by the work in this region of one of my favourite photographers –Michael Kenna.

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What better place to start then the village called el Toboso where legend has it that Quixote met his lady love, Dulcinea. This village is some two-hour drive south of Madrid and is situated on an open plain. In March, 2013  it was experiencing a late winter. There was snow, rain and strong winds. A most bleak an unpromising beginning to Spain and made even more so by a flat tyre!  I was already beginning to believe that my worldview was that of Don Quixote as his common depiction is that of a skinny old man with a shock of grey hair and a paunch riding a donkey. Looking at the flat tyre I suddenly felt very much like a Don Quixote. After all, I too was skinny, with paunch, the beginnings of a grey beard and if I had any hair it would be grey. I was also delusional. The evidence was overwhelming. Who, but a mad photographer would venture out in the bitter winds, snow, sleet of la Mancha when a fireplace beckoned in the lovely 17th century cottage we were renting. Venture out we did.

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Our village was about a twenty-minute drive from Campo Criptana across flat land that was a mixture of vineyard, olive and sundry cropping. Large estate buildings were to be found on most ridges with small churches, cemeteries and workers’ cottages nearby. Campo Criptana is an unprepossessing town. It is located along a main road that heads west-east and part of the corridor known as the Don Quixote trail. However, on its northern flank there is a cluster of windmills set against the sky.

You can drive right up to these windmills and because of the time of the year there were few tourists or locals anywhere to be seen. It might have had something to do with the snow, sleet, drizzle, wind and chill. But, hey what would I know.

We spent the best part of a week exploring this region and in doing so managed to get back to Campo Criptana morning noon and night on a number of occasions.

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On most occasions the light was soft and pearly with a lovely diffuse glow. It was also photographed with a clear blue sky and in the afterglow of twilight. Within an hour’s drive of Campo Criptana and el Toboso there are three or four clusters of Moulin. Some were operational, others were focussed on the tourist and souvenir, some were in advanced stages of repair and in one instance two, adjacent to a small chapel and community centre, had been converted to toilet blocks.  I visited them often! Don Quixote might have been proud of these toilet facilities built in to a windmill.  Clearly the age of chivalry he spent his life seeking was not dead after all.

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