Sunday, 15 April 2018

Judge not....

Last week I took my first faltering steps into the world of judging photographic work.

It was a challenge. I tried my very best to rise to that challenge and do justice to the work of all the entrants, but really it was a fairly sketchy first attempt.

The competition in question was for less experienced photographers at Northern Ireland level. Less experienced doesn't mean less good - there were a substantial number of excellent shots in the collection to be judged.

Working as part of a three-person team, with one very experienced member, was what made me think I'd be brave enough to do it. And the most enjoyable part of the process was the evening judging session, with no audience, where we looked at all the images and made our decisions.  We had a pretty good level of agreement on which ones were in the top half of each category, and then which ones were in the final dozen or so. But it took time to whittle those ones carefully down to the top three, the highly commendeds and so on. There was a lot of worthwhile discussion and persuasion. It was instructive to hear the opinions of my fellow judges; sometimes they noticed things that I didn't, and sometimes my opinion changed, based on their points of view. With only a little compromise to ensure that everyone's opinions were represented, we ended up with impressive line-ups of winners for our three categories.

A few evenings later came the really difficult bit - presenting our decisions to an audience, largely composed of people whose work was included in the competition.

Considering I'm someone who talks all day long for a living, I find talking to a photography audience surprisingly nerve-wracking. They're my peers, and a lot of them know a lot more than I do. By the time this particular evening rolled round, I was beside myself. I was hoping for some kind of cataclysmic weather or political event that wouldn't actually harm anybody, but would definitely involve the cancellation of the competition. Sadly, it was a reasonable sort of a damp day and Northern Ireland ticked along in its usual not overly competent but definitely not cataclysmic way.

So I had to stand up and talk about the images. I had read every book and article I could find about good judging - and of course I had my own high-minded advice to follow from this article

And I sort of managed to do it. I was fortunate to be able to present many of the images that I'd been most impressed by. I think I conveyed a good sense of enthusiasm for these. I tried to concentrate on their artistic content, the messages they were presenting and how they might make viewers feel. I tried not to tell personal anecdotes, but I slipped up once or twice.

What I found really difficult, though, was making suggestions or giving advice that might be useful to the photographers. The few times I managed it, it was hedged about with so many perhapses, maybes, mights and possiblys that my intended recommendations were probably completely lost. And sometimes I just couldn't bring myself to say anything negative - so the photographer might well wonder why, if it was so good, it wasn't sitting amongst the top prizewinners?

I also realised afterwards that I'd said very little about anything technical in all the feedback I'd given. Composition, content, mood, emotion, use of colour had featured heavily, but I'd not discussed things like depth of field, exposure, editing techniques and so on. I'm not sure how that happened.

All in all, it was an educational experience. I don't know if I'll ever be asked to judge anything again. If I am, I'll do it better next time. If not, the respect that I already had for all the good and well-meaning judges I come across will increase a hundred-fold. A win either way.

The image at the start? It's my own. It's called Close to my Heart. I included it here because it's one that I thought judges would very possibly not like. But it was placed first in my most recent competition, and I'm thinking how very well-informed, sensitive and wise that judge was..... :)

Friday, 30 March 2018

Lough Ennell

Lough Ennell, just south of Mullingar in County Westmeath.

This was one of my stopping places (the only one without tea and cake) on my way back from Portumna to Belfast yesterday. It was the generous recommendation of a friend - and such a beautiful place.

It was a dull day, but the clouds were lovely, reflecting in the tranquil surface. Much of the lake is very shallow, with rocks and plants emerging elegantly from the water.

It feels old, despite the calm. It has a busy history of crannog and ringfort building and buried silver. Now, it's surrounded by big houses and golf courses, but on a dull Irish day, there's enough wildness left to imagine it in ancient times. It even has swans - but by the time I reached them it was raining heavily and I needed some chocolate cake. I'll aim to return in May, with a picnic.

Monday, 12 March 2018

Faces of the Lough

I've written in earlier posts about the photography of my grandpa, Ernest Elliott. He lived in Portaferry from just after the turn of the last century until the mid-1980s, and his work reflects what he saw in his local area over those decades of vast change. Some of his most striking images were of rural life on the Ards Peninsula and around Strangford Lough. Perhaps the most touching, though, are his portraits of local people.

So it's particularly nice that this week in the Down County Museum in Downpatrick, an exhibition of his portraits has opened. 

I visited yesterday and came away very impressed by the museum's work. The images are well chosen and beautifully displayed, with standard-sized framed prints broken up by very large prints of some of the most striking portraits.

I found it a moving experience to walk round the gallery, looking at each face in turn. Part of that was the fact that it was my grandfather's work, and he'd have been very proud and pleased if an exhibition like this had happened in his lifetime.

Part of it, though, is something that I often feel when looking at portraits. To my eye, in the best portraits there's a sense of connection between the subject and the photographer which creates a moment of openness, almost of vulnerability. The humanness of the subject is clear, in its hopefulness, joy, confidence, sorrow or fear. That can be heart-rending to look at decades afterwards - one authentic moment captured from a life lived and completed. 

All these emotions are on view here. The images I've added here are photographs of the photographs, and they don't convey the full quality of the work, but perhaps you'll catch some of those moments nevertheless.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Photographing dinner

One of the advantages of being a camera club member is the opportunity to participate in regular competitions. And one of the advantages/disadvantages of our particular local federation is the two themed competition rounds each year. 

Sometimes these are inspiring, sometimes off-putting, very often challenging. So far I've attempted street photography (quite far outside my comfort zone), contre-jour (shooting against the light, not a success), texture (oh yes, this suited me very well), bad weather (you'd think, living in this country, that that would be easy, but no), and infrastructure (a challenge, but I was pleased with what I managed).

The most recent themed round was food. This has been much more of a challenge than I would have expected, and it's taken most of the year to achieve just three shots that I'm satisfied with. But it has been fun.

The one at the start of this post is my favourite. It started as a picture in my head, and it had its title, Sugar and Spice, from the outset. The vintage spoons were a key component - from all my experience of shooting old cars, I'm very aware that photographing shiny metal is a nightmare because of the reflections. Once it stops being shiny, you get lovely patinas, and you don't see a tiny version of yourself and your camera in every piece. So I haunted antique shops both here and in the US until I had enough old cutlery.

The spices came from Belfast's fabulous St George's Market. The spice stall lady let me buy tiny amounts of all the prettiest spices, though she looked very dubious at my choices, obviously deeply concerned about what my dinner was going to taste like.

I shot three versions of the image, on white, red and black backgrounds. There was no doubt which was best, although I'd really hoped that the red would work.

And my living room smelt fantastic, despite the spice lady's concerned face, for several days.

The oysters also came from St George's Market. I had carefully sourced this lovely vintage, non-shiny, seafood-themed silver dish from an antique shop in Asheville. The shoot was in my garden in November, and the light was perfect for both it and the oysters.

I was particularly looking forward to eating the oysters afterwards. I'd never tried them before, but I love seafood - my favourite dinner is mussels, and my favourite place to eat is the Mourne Seafood Restaurant.

But I ended up being off work for a week. I don't really like looking at this photograph any more.

Finally, a nice little tomatillo, with no tragic aftermath. This one is from last August, lit by the evening sun in J's garden in North Georgia. With its comrades, it ended up as an excellent salsa for our homemade burgers. An ideal food item, attractive, well behaved and tasty.

So those are my three. You'd laugh to see most of the others, and I was slightly tempted to post some of them here. But it would be pretty embarrassing. 

Food photographers deserve much more respect than I had realised. This was a serious challenge which produced a lot of failure - but proved a positive learning experience in the end.

And I'm seriously excited by one of next season's challenges - a photograph to illustrate a book or song title. Very much up my street.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

Car Guy

My new AV, Car Guy: click on the photograph below to see it on Vimeo...

This one has been a challenge, technically and emotionally.

After the unexpected success of Matthew Loney's Miracle, which built up a little collection of trophies and medals from various national competitions during 2017, I was suffering from a bad case of impostor syndrome. I was very pleased with Matthew Loney, but I'd had so little experience of AV work when I made it that I felt its success was a bit of a lucky accident. It was frequently praised as being very different. And it was, because I didn't really know what was the usual thing for an AV.

February sees the start of the 2018 AV season, with the NIPA festival as the first event, and I felt that I needed to make something new - but also that whatever I made, it would never be as good as Matthew. This is a paralysing attitude. It's one I see often in my own students. I'm sympathetic to it, but when someone else is feeling this way, I'm great at proffering sensible advice and encouraging them to move on. It's much harder when I'm the one paralysed.

I still have the syndrome, but I made the AV too. I got started by deciding that I was right, it would never be as good as Matthew, and that was ok. Instead, I treated it as a chance to try some new things. There's a voiceover. It's half the length, but I still wanted to convey a cohesive story. And it's in colour.

This proved to be a good approach. The always supportive J helped me with the script. We spent several happy evenings over the Christmas holidays lounging on the sofa, arranging fragments of text on a plastic tray from WyseByse, arguing over individual words, high-fiving each other when we hit on a good phrase. 

Working out the technicalities of the voice tracks was a good learning experience too, once I'd constructed a pop shield from a coat hanger and a pair of tights, having forgotten to borrow a real one from work. We recorded several takes to get the voice right, though it was freakish how easily J was able to sound like an 80-year-old. I had the foresight to chop the chosen track up into multiple segments, which made moving them around to work with the music track and slides much more flexible in my PicturesToExe AV software.

The heart of the story is Car Guy himself, beautifully played by my friend's dad. And in a way, he represents the best of all our dads, with his homespun wisdom, his integrity, his mild humour and his understated but longstanding love for Isabella.

I hope it all comes together effectively for viewers - I'd love it to come across as touching, and for you to enjoy wandering through that southern scrapyard as much as both Car Guy and I have done.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Silas Fretwell

Silas Fretwell, banjo player.

Boxing day, over a month ago. Northern Ireland was at its winter best, and the very game J went along with my styling ideas and posed moodily on a range of beaches round the Ards peninsula. Also in the alleyway behind my house, where one thoughtful neighbour has provided a beautiful weathered black backdrop as his garden wall.

I love projects like this. The combination of developing the concept, imagining the styling, finding the clothing and props, chasing the most beautiful weather, and trying to get everything right on location is an inspiring challenge.

And this particular day was a good one. Sometimes what I've imagined looks really stupid in practice, but I was happy with this combination of content and locations.

We ended up having tea at the Portaferry Hotel, as J tried to regain feeling in his fingers, which were sadly unused to playing metal strings for such a length of time. I think it was worth it, but that's easy to say when I was hiding behind the camera, properly dressed for the cold day, and pressing nothing more aggravating to the fingers than a shutter. Maybe I owe him more than afternoon tea.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Following Frances 4: Swanlinbar, Part 2

I’ve been thrilled by the visceral glimpse into Frances and William’s life afforded by my visit to the derelict Swanlinbar Methodist Church (you can read about it here), and I’m ready to drive away happy. But Gregory wonders if I’ve called at the manse yet. No – I had assumed that the manse lay between the church and the river, and that it’s long demolished.

It’s not. It’s a few houses up the Creamery Road from where I parked my car. Gregory suggests that I call at the door.


I walk out the road, knowing it’s a long shot. But there working in the garden are Noel and his son Conor. I explain my connection with the house and I’m welcomed in. Noel’s wife Kathleen arrives back from doing messages in the town and we begin a tour of the manse.

It’s a gorgeous house, detached and set in a substantial garden, with stabling for a horse. The period features are intact – the tiles in the square hallway, with the staircase rising up around it, the shutters throughout the ground floor, the window frames with some little touches of stained glass. It’s the most elegant house Frances has lived in so far, and as her first manse, it always occupied a special place in her heart. Nora writes about her mother’s vivid descriptions of her new home and of placing her wedding presents around it.

Kathleen and Noel are the most generous and lovely hosts possible. In no time, I’m sitting having my lunch at a big old table in my great-grandmother’s kitchen. It’s bread and cheese and tea. The cheese is fancier than any Frances would have seen, but it’s familiar ground. We talk about the Swanlinbar of today, education and prospects for young people, agriculture, health and Irish political issues. This manse kitchen has listened to such conversations continually over the last 117 years. I feel immensely privileged to be involved in this one, and there’s a very grateful tear in my eye.


Frances and William lived here in County Cavan for three years. It was a quiet posting in many ways. Later, when I’m able to see the original documents in the library at Edgehill, I find that William officiated at only one wedding during these years, perhaps his first. It was a winter celebration, when Maggie Jane Moffitt married William Magee on the fifth of December 1900.

Maggie, a seamstress, thirty-one years old, had been living with her older brother Robert, his wife Doria and their seven children on the family farm in the tiny townland of Gortnaleg, just south of Blacklion. After her marriage, she moved in with William, his elderly mother and father and sister Hannah, on their farm in Druminiskill, just across into County Fermanagh. The Magees were a Church of Ireland family, and Maggie left the Methodist Church of her youth to join her husband’s denomination.

The census records of 1911 show Maggie and William living in Druminiskill with their eight-year-old son Richard. Hannah is still with them, occupying the position of unmarried auntie that Maggie had previously held in her own brother’s family. The Magee family remain in their Gortnaleg farm. Doria’s name is now transcribed as Deliah, or perhaps Deriah. The three eldest children have left home, and four more young ones have joined the family. The youngest is baby Wesley Jason, an astonishing mix of names, Methodist and 1970s, to my eye. Interestingly, two of the middle children, including Maggie Jane, named after her aunt, are recorded as being able to speak Irish as well as English.

All of that’s a bit of a diversion, but it’s also a little snapshot of a family history very typical of its time and place. I also wonder about the personal connections between the characters I see emerging from the church’s careful records. Frances and Maggie were the same age and had much in common. Might they have been friends? Might they have kept in touch during the years ahead, as Frances, a great letter-writer, moved from town to town and Maggie brought up her one precious son in the Lakeland countryside? Would they have heard of the important events to come in each other’s lives and sent sincere notes in their similar, careful late-nineteenth-century handwriting?


Frances was six months pregnant with her first child at the time of Maggie and William’s wedding. The baby was due in March. With so many older and younger siblings, nephews and nieces, I would imagine that Frances had attended births before and looked forward with excitement and a realistic idea of what lay ahead for her own first confinement.

Her sister Rebecca, a reassuring and competent presence, came to stay in the manse. Everything was made ready for the expected time. But a complication arose. William received news that Swanlinbar was to receive a visit from the Reverend F E Harte, minister of Carlisle Memorial Church in Belfast, as part of the Foreign Mission Deputation. Fred Harte was a friend of William’s – they had been ordained together. Carlisle Memorial was William’s own home church. Offering hospitality at the manse was the right thing to do.

And despite everybody’s best hopes, the inevitable happened. Frances and Rebecca entertained their visitor warmly, and everyone retired to bed. Almost immediately, Frances went into labour.

Fred Harte tells the tale in his own book, The Road I Have Travelled. “I was three long weeks in the country speaking on week-nights and preaching on Sundays. The tour began at Enniskillen, from which I had a two hours trip down Lough Erne to Knockninny, thence to Swanlinbar, where a little boy was born to the Rev. and Mrs. William Bryans while I was in the manse. There was great commotion during the night, but I slept peacefully through it all. The little boy was called after me.”

Mr Harte was a notoriously heavy sleeper. Later in his book he manages to slumber through the night of the Donaghadee gun-running. Nevertheless, to modern sensibilities, having to stifle your labour cries to avoid disturbing your husband’s colleague in the guest bedroom sounds like a duty too far. Frances was certainly made of sterner stuff, though, and, ironically or as a genuine compliment, the little boy was indeed named Frederick Edward.


Fred was joined the next summer by his brother Donald. The manse and its safe green garden were the perfect place for the little boys to play, and by the spring of 1903, Frances was secretly expecting her third child.

But spring was becoming a time of anxiety. She knew that a move was inevitable, and as yet there was no indication of William’s next posting. With every passing week she looked more fondly round her warm, square, nicely appointed house and feared that its comforts would be hard to equal. Her fears were to prove entirely justified.