Sunday, 20 May 2018

Things we lost in the fire

It's good to challenge yourself to try new things. This is a new thing I've been working on for the last month - my first composite image. It's by no means perfect, but I'm pleased with how it's turned out as a kind of trial run.

By good fortune - rather than highly skilled discrimination - it turned out to be a good image to use for a first attempt. The fact that the figure is quite dark and is set on an even darker background made it fairly forgiving. I was excited to see that, when you place the figures side by side, the line of their adjoining arms creates a very nice continuous line, providing a sense of flow from one to the next. The lenses of the gas masks became ready-made frames to surround the images that I placed inside them, making this task much more straightforward than if I'd had to blend them into a scene in a realistic way.

I've learned a lot of new Photoshop skills through working on this image, but developing the initial concept was more fun still. The original image was called "Close to my heart". In the composite, I wanted to develop the idea of the man holding tight to the gas mask, attempting to keep several things close to his heart. The images in the lenses show a girl, face turned from the camera, a couple walking into the distance, and a heart worked in wrought iron. There's a lightly sketched story there.

Did he succeed? "Things we lost in the fire" doesn't sound overly hopeful. 

The butterfly (vintage, carefully attached with a bendy wire and a piece of Sellotape), however, could be interpreted in a range of different ways - escape, a soul, forgiveness, change, death, resurrection....

Monday, 7 May 2018


I spent most of last weekend reading Susan Cain's book on the magic of introversion, 'Quiet'. (It's not the first time that reading a book was my main weekend entertainment, see below.)

I've always known that on the introvert/extrovert scale I'd be on the introvert side, but I would have thought I wasn't too far from the half-way point. I'm not particularly shy. I'm calm rather than anxious and pretty emotionally stable. I have good friends. My job has involved talking for most of the working day for the last 30 years. I can do public speaking. 

But 'Quiet' was a revelation to me in terms of how I understood the true meaning of introversion, of Susan Cain's presentation of the strengths and benefits of this personality type, and of just how many introverted boxes I could in fact tick. It's not shyness, or anxiety, or solitariness. It's a different angle of thinking and feeling, and I recognised myself on every page. If this is you, or your partner, or your child, or your students - half the world - you won't regret reading it too.

Some of the bells that rang for me were my dislikes, such as events which demand audience participation, group problem-solving tasks, brainstorming, the section in some church services where you have to greet, or, horrifyingly, hug everybody, being in the middle of a large crowd of people, small talk.

And the things I enjoy, like connecting with people online, creating things independently (I don't want lots of feedback or suggestions on what I'm making), a space of my own, being on my own after spending time with other people, proper conversations, silence after a day of sound.

I'm very wary of conflict and of upsetting people.

I know I'm over-sensitive to all sorts of things, in both positive and negative ways, easily hurt, very observant, cautious, imaginative, persistent and loyal.

I can drive for four hours without turning the radio on, just thinking.

I can also behave like an extrovert if it's for the sake of something I really believe in - but I'll need space to recharge afterwards.

My best New Year's Eves have involved midnight walks on the beach with one person. A New Year's Eve party? Nightmare.

One of the things I found interesting was the way she linked the qualities of sensitivity, empathy and being highly reactive to aspects of introversion - this was definitely something I'd identify with. My own devastating first day at nursery school fitted neatly into the highly reactive category. I'd been used to just playing as a pair with my lovely and imaginative best friend until this point, and the sheer number and noise of the nursery children upset me terribly. The fact that the toilet flushing and the Hoover vacuuming at home also upset me terribly should probably have alerted my parents to the fact that nursery school wasn't likely to be a big success for me. 

It made me smile to come to my blog after reading Cain's book and realise what I'd called it... I'd named it after the somewhat corny but true saying, "The quieter you become, the more you can hear". I'd found this to be true in many contexts, but it seemed to me to have special implications for a photographer.

The virtues of patience, observation, persistence, listening, thinking, planning, taking time and space - they all have their contribution to make in photography. Obviously there's room for spontaneity, boldness and risk-taking too - but sometimes those work better once the other things are already in place.

When I was a child, I didn't really think about what I was like as a person. I just knew that there were quite a few places in my world where I was very uncomfortable - and others where I was totally at home. As an adolescent, I assumed I was weird and different from everybody else and wrong. I didn't realise that most of my friends were probably feeling the same in their various ways. As an adult, I'm pretty comfortable with what I'm like. I'm used to myself and what works for me. But it was still a very uplifting experience to read Susan Cain's book and see the qualities of an introverted person - which are so often presented as problems, or challenges to be overcome, or aspects of oneself that must be worked on - as positive, things to be celebrated, the valuable contribution of half of the world.

Postscript: my mum has just told me that there were about five children at the dreadful nursery school I was sent to, and that it was specially chosen for its small size and quiet atmosphere, since I was such a sensitive little thing. I remember hordes of children, probably 30, and chaotic scenes of apocalyptic terror. I was obviously even more sensitive and reactive than I remember...

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.