Monthly Archives: June 2010

If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is…

Vanessa and Mikes wedding (1 of 536)

I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is’ Kurt Vonnegut Jnr

The above quote comes from Kurt Vonnegut’s non-fiction ruminations on the state of his country in the short volume titled  A Man Without A Country. Though often pigeonhold as pessimistic and and cynical, Vonnegut mostly pedalled hope, shot through with a healthy dose of jet black humour. Vonnegut is one of my favourite authors and although primarily pegged as a science fiction author his novels transcended genres and always ended up being about real people with real hopes and fears. If you haven’t already, I urge you to read ‘Slaughterhouse-Five’ his anti-war, time and space hopping classic or [in my opinion] his masterpiece ‘Breakfast of Champions’.

Over the years I have attended many weddings as a guest but the weekend just gone attended my first as a photographer. I did this as a favour to a friend whose sister was getting married and who didn’t want traditional posed wedding shots. The bride wanted to enjoy the day and not be herded around or posed; she wanted something informal that captured the day in its entirety from start to (very late) finish and something that was not going to cost a fortune. I am still not entirely sure why I agreed to do this although looking back I think red wine may have been involved and I was riding high at the time after my little exhibition coming into fruition. So it was (and so it goes Vonnegut fans) that I found myself in Devon photographing the wedding of two people that I had never met on the hottest day of the year so far.

To be honest, nervous does not really cover it. I was fully aware that it was within my capabilities to ruin two lovely people’s big day; two people who had put their trust in me after seeing some Glastonbury photographs on Twitter. However, I could not have been made more welcome than I was… by everyone from both families and friends. They accepted me as ‘the photographer’ which was kind of cool but hey, they didn’t know any different did they readers? I really was very nervous but managed to pull through taking almost 1000 images in the process. It would be unfair of me to blog a photo of the actual wedding here before the bride and groom have had a chance to see the photos but this is a picture of the location, a thatched cider barn on an eco-farm in Devon. I am currently ploughing through the photographs, whittling them down and hope to end up with a fitting set of images that capture the special day.

And the Vonnegut? This was one of the readings at the wedding. I have not quoted it in its entirety but please seek it out. In a nutshell, he is saying that we ALL need to give our own happiness a little bit of headroom. It was a perfect reading for a perfect wedding and was made under a magnificent ancient oak tree in the middle of the woods that bounded the farm. It fitted perfectly. Beautiful weather. Check. Happy friends and family. Check. A genuine sense of two people very much in love. Check. As the quote goes ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is’. My own wedding was 13 years ago this July. It poured down torrentially ALL day, so much so that a gentle steam hovered above the guests. Yet the quote still applies. Furthermore it can be applied on a daily basis. Even the shittiest day of your working week may have a Vonnegut moment. It may be The Elgins ‘Heaven Must Have Sent You’ coming on the car stereo as you drive home from work in the last of the day’s sunshine; it may be Portugal going out of the World Cup at the hands of a majestic Spain; it may be a realisation that the book that you are reading is one of the special ones that you will keep, treasure and force upon anyone that will listen. Small moments maybe but moments of pure joy and happiness nonetheless.

There is another quote by Vonnegut, again from A Man Without A Country that I have printed on a T-shirt. It basically carries much of the same sentiment but darkly skewed. It is this:

I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you different.
Kurt Vonnegut Jnr

Those 18 words say more to me than many a good book, particularly those of a self-help nature, could ever muster. It is the stark truth of the human condition and ambition laid bare, shot through with humour and joy. And if that’s not nice I don’t know what is…

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On social networking, old friends and new friends

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I am writing this at a very late hour having taken more than the maximum tolerated dose of red wine. Regular readers will know that I occasionally veer away from blogging about photography and I feel that this may well be one of those occasions. After all, if this blog was only ever about photography and the depths to which my self confidence can spiral then no-one would ever read it. Yet, amazingly enough people do read it. Admittedly, a lot of these people are good friends – the glue that holds my life together – but also people from further afield. From ‘out there’ in Internet Land. I have been writing this blog for just over a year now and am still amazed at the fact that people read it and comment on it from as far afield as Australia in one direction and from Seattle in the other. The world really is getting smaller and this feeds in to my previous post about most human beings, in general, being good. In the short life of this blog I have had friends pick me up when down, complete strangers stating that they love my photography and one comment that has made me cry from a soldier about to be posted to Afghanistan. My WordPress stats tell me that people do visit this blog every day; they also unfortunately tell me of the highs (4000+ visitors in one day for the ‘Makeover Madness’ post that made the front page of WordPress) and the lows – yesterday example I know that 16 people visited.

Of course, when I post something I get more traffic. It stands to reason that this should be the case. But I know that I have been very lax of late for a whole multitude of reasons. At a BBQ at the weekend a friend berated me for not updating the blog enough and she’s right. I don’t. Or at least not as much as I used to or should do. This has mainly been due to a paucity of material as I have not taken many photographs of late but also due to a certain amount of, how shall I put it, low self esteem. That probably sounds a bit emo or as emo as a 42-year-old man can be (no guy liner just yet) but its true. I have thought long and hard about it and I haven’t been able to escape the feeling that I’m probably just not as good as people think I am. No reflection on you dear reader. I love reading your comments and I have loved the rollercoaster that has brought this blog into being. I just think that all things considered I am a proficient amateur photographer and it’s as simple as that. Not rubbish but not great either and I am quite happy with that. Please don’t get me wrong – this is not a negative, self pitying blog post, quite the opposite. Realising this has freed me from the shackles of trying to achieve more than I am currently capable and the last 12 months or so has brought me so much more than recognition for my photographs – new friends, re-connections with old friends, a forum to discuss, a prop for when I have been down and a loud hurrah to support what I think is good.

The last 12 months have been great and I have achieved so much (and thanks to all who have helped me, supported and taken the time to comment) but it struck me today  that all this has been made possible by the modern interconnected world in which we live. Someone said to me that ‘facebook is for people you used to know and Twitter is for people you want to know’ and I think that to a certain extent this holds true. It seems obvious to me though that if I didn’t feed this blog into my facebook page or alert people to its existence via Twitter then I would probably be pissing in the wind. Via these medium I have re-connected with very old friends from school and from university and found that not only are we all essentially the same but also harbour the same hopes, fears, doubts and worries. Read my post on ‘Ducks and Mortality’ and the comments to get a sense of what I mean. I have never kept a diary but this blog has provided a platform to keep myself sane and say things that I would never say out loud in person. Certainly I have never spoken to anyone about my fear of my own mortality as I did in the ‘Ducks’ post.

People that know me think that I am brash, loud and sarcastic. I know they do and indeed I am to a certain extent. I am also stubborn and opinionated, which again is true. But at the same time I have always been pretty shy; the brashness to a certain extent is a coping mechanism. Certainly in my teenage years I did not have much success with the opposite sex, primarily because I didn’t fall into the ‘treat ‘em mean and keep ‘em keen’ mentality that prevailed. Also, as a teenager and young adult I was ridiculously moral and saw the world purely in black and white. Older and wiser is not a cliché, it also happens to be true. See my ‘Random thoughts’ tab for more on this subject. I am still a moral person but it took me a long while for my youthful idealism to fade and for me to finally recognised that the world is made up not of black and white but in shades of grey, and multiple shades at that. Would I have done things differently? Of course. Would I change the life I have now? Of course not. The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there…

So, the invention of the Internet and social networking has brought me here. It has brought me some modest successes (a photo exhibition) and a means to get things off my chest. I have also watched friends use the tools available to create wonderful things. One friend of mine is an as yet unpublished author who is slowly building a readership (I aim to become his gamekeeper once he is landed and rolling in it which I’m sure will happen); another has built an online business which provides invaluable information to parents across the UK; some new friends are using their agency to champion local business and fight the sprawl of retail chains. This post was prompted by two of my friends, one from my past history and one from my current history, connecting and discussing a business opportunity as a mentor and mentee (is that a word?), respectively. Two people that would never had been able to network and exchange ideas without Twitter. The fact that I am convinced that their contact has absolutely nothing to do with me is amazing.

You hear loads of people badmouthing social networking as if it is an electronic wasteland for people with no life or real friends. They are missing the point. It is an opportunity. A place where you can share ideas, reconnect, unburden your fears, get support and provide support. A key figure from my formative years, Frank Sidebottom, died this week. Today Twitter users (including me) raised more than £7000 so that his family could avoid a pauper’s funeral and give him a decent send off. Now of course it’s very easy to be cynical about this. But I see it like this; here was a man who entertained thousands, a man who made people laugh, a man who touched the lives of many people. I recently bought a CD on eBay from Frank (real name Chris Sievey). When the CD arrived it was accompanied by a hand-written note, some postcards and a hand-made badge, which (after the events of this week) I now treasure. Social networking is making the world smaller. It is highlighting injustice. It is building communities. It is reconnecting friends old and new. I for one think that this is a good thing.

And the photograph? Its a shot of the cottage we stayed in on the banks of Coniston Water earlier this year. Taken at dusk with the rest of the family inside getting ready for bed. For me it has a sense of community and a sense of warmth that seemed to chime with what I was trying to say in this post. Thanks for listening

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In England’s green and pleasant land

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White Nancy atop Kerridge Hill, near Bollington. Taken 17th June 2010. One day before England take on Algeria in the World Cup. No further comments are necessary except to say that despite the fact that I know deep down that England are not going to win the World Cup, somewhere inside there is a little seed of hope. That seed might grow if we can win this evening and then who knows what might happen. England expects.

I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit; and, upon this charge
Cry ‘God for Harry! England and Saint George!’

William Shakespeare, Henry V

Normal service will be resumed.

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On the origin of species

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Yes that’s right. It’s another blog post. And yes it is only a few days after the last. And you know what, there may well be another tomorrow depending on how the photographs I took today turn out. This is another photograph from our trip to Chester Zoo last weekend and I actually think that I like it more than the lion picture that I posted a couple of days ago. I’ve always been a bit ambivalent about zoos, despite living so close to such a large one. Being a child of the 70s I can remember what zoos used to be like; even Chester Zoo did not possess the areas of open space that it does now. One of my vivid childhood memories is watching a yellowish grey polar bear pacing backwards and forwards in a concrete enclosure barely big enough to contain it. Over the years many zoos have changed and many, including Chester, now play an active role in conserving species and repatriating animals back into their natural habitats.

The natural world is a fragile one, which is being increasingly damaged by the actions of one particular species. The current crisis in the Gulf of Mexico highlights how delicate ecosystems are and how easy it is for greed and negligence to destroy huge swathes of the natural world. Modern zoos – and perhaps the best example I have been to is Faunia in Madrid – whilst still unable to get past the fact that these animals are still in captivity at least now realise that they have a role to play in conservation and in ensuring that the animals are as well looked after as they can be.

At Chester zoo my daughter’s favourite place to visit is the orangutans; not sure why although it is maybe something to do with the fact that I have yet to meet a child that does not like monkeys (and apes for that matter). Whilst we were watching two young orangutans swinging and climbing, their mother, pictured, swung over to where we were viewing them and studied us intently. She appeared to be very interested in the camera and if I didn’t know better I would swear that she came over to us expressly for the purpose of having her picture taken. Certainly, she seemed to be posing – hand resting on chin, gazing directly into the lens.

This picture was taken through glass and therefore is not as sharp as it could be but when I got it home and viewed it I was struck by the intensity of that gaze and the intelligence in those eyes. It’s hard for me to believe that not that long ago Charles Darwin was ridiculed for suggesting that we were linked as species. I’m not a very religious person, something you may have noticed, especially if you have read the 25 random things that head this blog. I did not have a religious upbringing (although one of my grand parents was a devout Catholic cast out of her church for marrying a protestant) and my only contact with churches has been through births, marriages and deaths. In fact I would go so far as to say that I have an innate distrust of organised religion and  religious doctrines. So what does that make me? An atheist? I certainly don’t believe in an all-powerful overseeing deity. I can’t see why the Christian God should be any more real that the God or Gods of other religions and ancient cultures. Why should the Greek or Roman or Egyptian deities be taken any less seriously than those of today’s dominant faiths?

At heart I’m a humanist. I take the view that we can make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared human values and that we can live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs. I believe that, in general (but by no means in all cases) science is a force for good. And I believe that most people are intrinsically good by nature. Of course I have lived a very cosseted life – white, middle-class Englishman, married, two kids, nice house – but in general, throughout my life I have never encountered anyone that I would consider evil. Maybe I’m just lucky. Maybe I’m naive. I am certainly aware that evil exists in the world but the vast majority of people I have encountered in my life thus far have given me no reason to believe that human beings are evil by nature.

Yet again I have wandered off the path somewhat. I do think that people should follow whichever course they feel is best for them. I have friends with strong religious beliefs and although I have, on occasion, had fierce debates with them about faith, my lack of it and the human condition I would never try and suggest that they are wrong to believe what they believe. And I know they would do me the same courtesy. Looking into the eyes of that orangutan, I feel a connection; more of a connection than I feel when entering a church or singing a hymn (not that I do the latter very often). Thank whatever God you believe in that we are all different, life would be very boring otherwise. Hold true to your own beliefs but never fall into the trap of thinking you have a right to tell other people that their beliefs are wrong.

It never ceases to amaze me at how I wander off topic in the course of this blog. I started off on zoos and ended up pondering the human condition. As you can probably guess I don’t start writing this with an end point in sight. It’s not structured and I’m unlikely to win any awards for my writing prowess. However, I do feel that the photographs need to be supported by something. I don’t thing they are strong enough (yet) to support themselves on their own. Some people have commented that they enjoy my posts almost as much as the photographs – this is something I don’t really understand. The photographs are things that I am really proud of, the words less so but the fact that anyone read this at, and that comments have been added from all over the world, still amazes me.

‘Goodnight, thank you, and may your god go with you’ Dave Allen

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Three lions (minus two), no shirt

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As regular readers to this blog will attest I have sort of decided that landscape photography is my particular niche. It’s what I’m best at and it’s what I feel most comfortable doing. Landscapes stay still, they don’t move, they take direction well. Apart, from the sea but even King Cnut had trouble there. However, I have always fancied having a go as a wildlife photographer but have so far spectacularly failed. Admittedly this has been due to not having a decent telephoto lens (mine broke), nor the technique, nor the ability to get up REALLY early and travel to where there is an abundance of wildlife. Of course, when I continue with this post it will quickly become obvious just exactly how much of an amateur idiot I am but for now I’ll just say that while I always had a desire to improve my wildlife photography I didn’t always have the will.

Now, as luck would have it I recently, finally managed to replace the telephoto lens that I broke. By sheer luck I managed to pick up a second-hand genuine Canon lens (70-300 mm with image stabilisation) which although not cheap was still a considerable reduction on buying it new. So first excuse no longer valid. Technique will only come with practice and since I have no problem getting up early to take landscapes then I really shouldn’t complain about having to get up early to capture wildlife. At the end of the day though, I am a bit scared because most of the animal/bird pictures that I have attempted have not been great, unless of course the subject is perfectly still. I need to swot up on improving my technique but this weekend I had a thought which was really, blindingly, head-slappingly obvious given that I live less than a minute away from Chester zoo, one of the largest zoos in Europe.

Now admittedly these are animals in captivity but it seemed a good place to work on technique and this is one of the better shots. I have realised that animals are unpredictable; they move suddenly and won’t pose for a start ;-). So a lot of the pictures I took were pretty ropey. Actually, make that very ropey. With a fair amount of blur. This will come with practice – I hope – and as all good photographers know (or at least I like to think), just one good shot can make all the failure and self doubt worth the effort.

This image I am really pleased with. First off the subject is compelling and framed nicely by the foliage. Second, he was looking directly to camera which helped. Third, a decent telephoto lens made all the difference. This image was shot through a chain link fence but as the subject of the picture was the lion and the focus was on him, the fence that was in the foreground magically disappeared. Despite the fact that it was shot within the safety of the zoo, the power in that face is hard to tear yourself away. Although a lion in captivity, this is one majestic creature that you know actually COULD and WOULD kill you in a second.

If I had thought more in advance I would have taken the tripod as many of the animals are indoor in low light – and most of these pictures did not make the cut. But the ones I took outside mostly turned out OK.

And the title? Well obviously its a World Cup reference but given England’s first performance I think its safe to say that the 44 years of hurt will most likely continue. By the time the next one comes around I might be proficient enough to consider myself a real wildlife photographer.

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Experiments in panorama

Albion street blue sky Old dee bridge Bridge cottage

Bandstand

Hello faithful readers! A bit of an unusual post today as it’s the first time I’ve posted multiple photographs for a while but hopefully the reasons will become apparent. As laid out in this blog I have still got loads to learn photography wise and this means I am always trying out new things that I’ve not tried before. Sometimes I stumble across techniques in photography magazines (like HDR), sometimes I look at what friends and contacts on Flickr and other photo sharing websites are doing and try and emulate them (as is the case here – take a bow Andy Howe). I have briefly dallied with panorama before but without overwhelming success so I though I would have a go. I was spurred on by a contact made via Flickr from a photo agency that expressed an interest in licensing some of my pictures of my home city of Chester.

Now I have taken lots and lots of pictures in Chester, always trying to avoid the obvious which is very difficult in a tourist city. Also, being a tourist city, surrounded by Roman walls, Chester is ALWAYS busy. Don’t get me wrong, I like people – indeed some of my best friends are people – but to a landscape photographer they can often be an unwelcome intrusion, especially in a busy city awash with shops and architecture. So how to capture my home city without the throngs? The answer, obvious really, was to get up at 5.30 on a Sunday morning and head into town as dawn broke. Using a tripod due to the low light I traipsed around taking pictures of Chester that I thought might appeal and it dawned on me (no pun intended) that this would be a good opportunity to try some more panoramic shots.

This involves taking 2 or 3 pictures using the tripod and very steady hands and splicing them together in Photoshop (which is actually a lot easier than it sounds). The above are some of the results and I must admit that I’m pretty pleased with the way they’ve turned out. Some of them will be familiar sites (such as the top image – an aborted version of which was my last blog post) but all capture a busy city devoid of people. It’s a bit like ‘28 Days Later’ but without the threat of infection. There is something very liberating in being out and about with the camera when the rest of the world is still abed. It was certainly very peaceful on the banks of the river Dee where three of the above pictures were taken. However, I was pretty amazed when moving up into the town to see how many people were still out from the night before, many shuffling around in a drunken haze which actually added to the 28 Days Later vibe (although I’m pretty sure that most zombies could move faster than the drunks I encountered).

I’m digressing again but it was odd to move from complete silence and tranquillity to raucous singing and being accosted by people looking for taxis. Now, I must admit to taking a drink myself but its been a long long time since I was up and drunk at 5.30 in the morning. When the licensing laws were relaxed I think the former government had grand plans about introducing a cafe culture to the UK (they failed to notice the rain and to take into account the continued rise of the alcopop) and whilst I applaud the change in terms of no longer having the ridiculous situation of every single pub and bar kicking people out at 11.30 I can’t help think that we have perhaps gone too far in the other direction.

See, what started out as a blog about panoramic technique has turned into something else as per usual. Getting back on the topic of photography, there is a lot to be said for getting out very early or very late and I hope that the photographs I took will be used. Certainly, it’s another way of getting my name ‘out there’ wherever that may be and if I sell some images then great. All proceeds will be going towards a new camera. Comments on any of the above welcome as always…

The next blog might be more interesting (I hope) and a bit more personal but it will probably mean rummaging about in the loft… See you shortly (honest)

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Blue sky thinking

The Albion blue sky

Yep, it’s back just when you thought that this blog might have fizzled out. To be honest I’m not going to give the usual excuses since you’ve heard them all before but yes I have been busy and yes I am thoroughly ashamed. The idea tonight was to blog another one of my favourite pictures from the The Lake District but given today’s events in Cumbria I didn’t really feel it was right. Yes the stunning landscape could provide a counterpoint to today’s events but at the same time I find it hard to believe that an act of such horror could happen in a place so beautiful and, well, safe. All I can say is that my heart goes out to anyone touched by today’s tragedy. Very few people in the UK own guns and it take’s today’s events in Whitehaven and the surrounding area to truly appreciate this fact.

So what to talk about today? If in doubt go to the pub and the more observant among you will recognise the Albion from an earlier post in which I sang its charms. This picture started out as an accident. I have been playing around with panoramas i.e. taking several pictures with the camera mounted on a tripod and then stitching them together to provide a panoramic 360 degree effect. This one went a bit wrong either because I jiggled the camera, or was too close to the subject or was using the wide-angle lens; the result being that the perspective is out. The pub looks huge and the other side of Albion street looks tiny. Also it was taken under a slate grey, drab, overcast sky – sky that was bleached out and over exposed.

Given that I have recently acquired Adobe Photoshop CS5 I thought I would have a little play around with trying to replace the sky. All proper photographers/Photoshop experts will be cringing now as it’s probably one of the easiest things in the world to do but since I have no training it took me a while to get a result that I was happy with. This was mainly achieved by watching a helpful video on YouTube and via a process of laughable trial and error. One of these days I am going to get some proper training but until then I will continue with the YouTube correspondence course in PhotoShop techniques.

So to cut a long story shorter I managed to do it. I replaced the drab sky with a blue sky from a holiday picture from last year and, you know what, I’m pretty pleased with it. Not sure why it works but it does; the skewed perspective adds something to the picture, and the blue sky gives it a bit of an otherworldly feel. I find it all a bit David Lynch… but then I am pessimist at heart. Something about the corner pub and the terraced houses of a Northern city does not lend itself to blue sky. It looks wrong but at the same time as a picture I think it works. I am not for one minute going to pretend that this picture is anything other than a mongrel, after all it is a composite of three different images but it has a certain arty quality that I like – so much so that I am thinking of having it framed with a BIG mount. It’s so crazy it might just work.

PS. As this is the Albion Inn and it’s now only 9 days until the world cup I’d like to wish Don Fabio and his M&S-clad boys all the best for South Africa. Of course it will all end in tears, either at the hands of Germany or Portugal, but I love this heady time. Those precious days before kick off when a nation raised on stories of 1966 thinks ‘maybe, just maybe’. Ah well you can always dream

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