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.

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Something to do with the sea

I blame the government for my lack of photographic and blogging action recently. This school year we have a new syllabus in place for two year groups, which makes for a much heavier workload than usual. I'm missing my weekends driving round the country - I seem to be spending far too much time sitting at my dining room table surrounded by A level notes instead.

But I did escape briefly from the Renaissance church anthem last weekend to drive one of my nieces along the County Down coast for an afternoon. It was a beautiful cold November day, ideal for a ten-minute walk every time we came to a harbour or a beach. Also ideal for eating at the Mourne Seafood Bar in Dundrum the instant the light went. We had salt and chilli squid, whitebait and mussels, all fantastic. 

It's funny how a short outing like that can completely revive your spirits. It's something to do with the sea, I think. I had to sit down with my notes the instant I got home, but it didn't seem quite such a chore as usual.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Frames and spaces

A high, beautiful space in the centre of Belfast. It's full of ghosts, emanating in layers from its Victorian brickwork. And every corner's a frame for a view, out or through.

We're upstairs in, appropriately, the old Frames snooker hall complex, once Robert Watson's beautiful furniture warehouse. It's stood through world wars, troubles, development and devastation and at least once it's been on the brink of demolition. Now it's waiting for its next act - perhaps an office space, perhaps an apartment.

All around us are faces, torn from magazines, preserved in the aspic of their heydays. It makes me wonder, randomly, how much I'd pay for the chance to look out of these high windows and see the old Belfast they saw. I'd give a lot.

Later, we're in another empty, lovely space. This is the Carnegie Library on the lower end of the Oldpark Road. It's also ready for new life and love, but full of the old energy of its hundred years of reading and learning. 

The architectural details are beautiful. The institutional pink paintwork, a pale, delicate version of the famous Baker-Miller pink, adds to the feeling that we're surrounded by benign spirits, wanting only to sit at a long mahogany table and take their turn with the day's newspapers or request a new Greek primer from the shelves.

You can find out more about the plans for this building here.