Down To The Waterline

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Calle de la Canonica

I’ve not written about Italian things for quite a while here. I’ll put that to rights now.

Venice and Siena vie for the honour of being my two most favourite cities, anywhere. Venice just wins, I think, mostly by dint of having more variety to offer the visitor. It doesn’t win by a huge amount, though, when things like charm and overall atmosphere come into it. Over the years, I’ve spent quite a lot of time in Venice. However, it surprises even me to realise I’ve never actually spent any length of time there. How so?

Well, back in the day that I had very regular commitments leading walking and scrambling parties in the Italian Dolomites, we flew there via Innsbruck for a good many years. Then things changed, and it became more convenient to fly in and out via Marco Polo airport, which serves Venice and the surrounding area. I frequently had a “changeover” day, when one group went home, but the next didn’t come in until a good bit later the same day. I always took the opportunity to grab half a day in “La Serenissima” herself. It made for some pretty focussed tourism, with an absolute deadline to catch a water taxi to the airport curtailing my fun.

That all ended, though. It was quite a few years before I got to make a “proper” visit to Venice – a week, with commitments to nobody but myself. Since then, I’ve been back maybe five or six times for similar visits, though it pained me to realise not long ago that the last time was just before Easter 2013. More than four years ago. That failing is being corrected in a few weeks from now, as I write.

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Venice “rush-hour”

Some people seem to have a real downer on Venice. Too busy, too many tourists, too expensive, and so on. I can only agree. Nevertheless, I think that there must be something in the frequent short visits I’ve made there that has in some way inoculated me against its excesses. That’s unusual, because my hatred of crowds and crowded places is well known, but I seem to be able to forgive Venice for its failings. Siena too, I think, although, unlike Venice, Siena has definite off-peak times, and I’ve been good at catching these.

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St Marks Umbrella Parade

 

 

 

 

 

The portfolio of anyone who takes a lot of photographs of Venice will always share a huge similarity with that of anyone else doing likewise. The place has a habit of channelling the visitor to certain key points, down common corridors, be they waterways or the delectable maze of backstreets that make up the real city. Nothing ever really looks the same each time, or to each visitor but let’s say that “unique” photos of anything in Venice are pretty much unheard of.

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The Red Umbrellas

To split a few more hairs, I’ve long been a photographer of landscapes. I’ve never really seen myself as a “travel photographer” in the currently acknowledged sense, however. There’s a big chunk of overlap, of course, especially when the “landscape” you’re photographing is part of a city. Venice, possibly uniquely out of all the places I love to visit, narrows the gap between “landscape” and “travel” photography the most. Not much “land” but lots of “scape”, I suppose.

Here’s my collection of images from 2013, called “City of Water”. You’ll probably see what I mean.

 

 

 

 

My upcoming visit to Venice will be prefaced by a couple of days in Padua. Padua (Padova) has been on my wish list for a while, and I only realised recently how close it actually was to Venice, and how short a train journey it was. Bring it on! The next episode of this blog will probably tell you how it went.

 

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To finish, here’s one of my very occasional “daubs”. I don’t think I’ve posted one here before. This is Santa Maria della Salute, from the Accademia Bridge.

 

(Having recently been to see a very good Dire Straits tribute band, it was a bit easy to choose my title for this blog.)

 

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Riding on a Railroad

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It’s strange the memories and stuff that come at you when you revisit somewhere you’ve not been for a while. It’s several years since I spent time in Chamonix, “capital” of the French Alps. I passed through ten days ago, on a diversion from somewhere else I’d been staying, and stopped for lunch.

“Cham” on a bright sunny day was as it always is – rammed. I managed to find a parking spot near the apartment I used to rent occasionally, and somewhere to sit for lunch. So, not too rammed on a September Thursday, I guess.

There was a very excitable young english couple on a table near to me. It was apparent from their conversation that they had recently had some kind of “near death experience” in the mountains, involving a thunderstorm. They’d clearly lived to tell the tale. It had me thinking about the occasions I could remember when an electrical storm added a certain something to a day out from Chamonix. Happily, I too had lived to tell the tales (such as they were) each time. I was probably never in real danger on either occasion, although it really didn’t feel like it at the time.

My private reminiscences continues on as I hit the motorways and began my journey home. and a thought began to puzzle me. We’ll come back to that.

One of my favourite spots of all in the French Alps is Le Signal. It’s the top of a broad, sloping pass, about 30 minutes walk above the Montenvers mountain railway station, or a couple of hours away, if coming from the west, from the middle station of the Aiguille du Midi cable car.

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Mont Blanc & the Aiguille du Midi cablecar, from path to Le Signal on a good day!

Le Signal is the place to view the famous Mer de Glace glacier, with its famous view up to the Grandes Jorasses. The view isn’t half what it probably was a hundred and more years ago, because of the pace that the glacier has retreated, but it’s still a very fine view indeed, which I have photographed often.

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Panorama south from Le Signal on a good day. Petit Dru far left of shot

Le Signal is also the place par excellence to gawp at the west face Petit Dru. The Dru is a shapely flying buttress on the side of the taller Aiguille Verte, but the top of the Verte is almost completely hidden in the view from Le Signal, which emphasises what a shapely, fairytale peak the Dru actually is.

Now, a slight diversion. I don’t shoot much film any more. I was a latecomer to digital photography, and for quite a few years, used my film and digital cameras side by side for landscape work. However, for reasons I now forget – other than the bargain price – in about 2008 I sank all of my investment in film cameras into one extensive Zenza Bronica GS-1 outfit. This camera and the bits and pieces that go with it is, in my view, the un-sung king of medium format film cameras, save for one thing: its bulk and weight. The GS is made to last. Even a bog-standard kit of body, basic lens, film back and prism viewfinder weighs in at almost 3 kilos. That’s before you’ve added to your bag an extra film back or two, a couple of other lenses, a handgrip and, more often than not, a pretty sturdy tripod. I was even more of a latecomer to the concept that it’s not what you put in the bag that matters, it’s what you decide to leave out.

To compromise, I stopped carrying a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera for landscape work. My Nikon DSLR is a bruiser, and its quality lenses are heavy too. I was glad to be persuaded to buy a Panasonic Lumix GF-1, compact digital camera with a range of interchangeable lenses. It’s a camera known as “the poor man’s Leica”. Seven or so years down the line, I have two of these in regular use. Great cameras, but more to the point here, they extended the time that I could justify the effort and sweat of lugging my Bronica GS outfit up into the mountains.

The Bronica, like nearly all medium format cameras, uses 120 roll film. The negatives/transparencies it shoots are 6cm by 7cm. In other words, pretty big. this means I get precisely ten shots to a roll of film before needing to go through the rigmarole of rewinding and changing the film, or digging out a second, pre-loaded film back. Medium format photography is a slow and very deliberate business, key to which is as much deciding which shots not to take, as it is deciding which ones to shoot.

Now, Le Signal is one of those spots where it is possible to justify packing a medium format outfit. The walk from the Aiguille du Midi cable car middle station is mostly a broad, undulating mountainside path, albeit with a half-hour brutal uphill finish. The walk up from Montenvers station is on a mess of paths, steep but direct, for about 30 minutes on a good day.

The occasion I have in mind was not, to begin with, a good day. Overnight rain had lingered, and, as September became October, unsettled autumn weather was taking control. Getting the most out of my stay in Chamonix involved spotting the weather windows and trusting to luck. By 11am, it looked like luck was heading my way, but it was early afternoon before I plucked up the courage to hop on board the Aiguille du Midi lift and head for Le Signal.

The walk-in had become very familiar. I’d been this way twice before during my current stay in Chamonix. This would be the last, as I was heading home in a week. Behind me, the summit of Mont Blanc stayed hidden in cloud, but I was treated to an afternoon of rapidly warming and fast-moving weather. I was happy to be out later than usual, having the backup of a return to Chamonix on the Montenvers railway.

Upon reaching Le Signal, the conditions were disappointing. There was a fairly poor view up the Mer de Glace, and the clouds were swirling around, making any photography hit and miss. This is really not what you want with medium format stuff. With digital, it’s usually a case of shoot away, and then delete the poor shots. At ten to a roll of film, to the cost of which needs to be added that of developing, the weather rather encouraged me to keep the camera in my rucksack and be philosophical about things. I’d at least brought a book with me to read while waiting for the train back, so I settled down in the shelter of some rocks, broke out the flask of tea and what was left of some pastries bought in the town that morning, opened the book, and waited to see what the weather would do.

What it did, within half an hour, was get quite dark. This sort of crept up on me, as it came from the east, and the lowering cloud was initially concealed by the bulk of the Aiguille Verte and the Dru, immediately across the valley from my seat. There was something else, too. Initially a bit intangible, but it was almost as if there was a humming in the air. Before I could dwell too much on that, however, the late afternoon sun dipped below the bottom edge of the clouds to the east that had been hiding Mont Blanc. The light was focussed like a giant torch beam from the east, over the saddle of Le Signal, and straight at the Petit Dru.

The Bronica had been on the tripod for some time, armed with its 50mm wide angle lens (which needs a 90mm filter, would you believe? You could eat your dinner off it!). Across on the Dru, the light was giving the clouds hovering around the summit a yellow tinge. I could tell by the shape of them that the mountain was attracting a storm all of its own. I took five shots. Half a roll of film.

Then…CRACK-BOOOOM. No gap between the lightning and the thunder. This wasn’t good. There was no immediate sign of rain, but the air was highly charged, and self-preservation demanded immediate descent. Things were thrown in my rucksack, and carrying the still-extended tripod, I made a heavy-laden run for it downhill towards the Montenvers railway station, as further bolts of lightning illuminated the afternoon. I’d be early for the 5pm train, but not by a great deal.

There was a different kind of shock waiting for me at Montenvers. Today was the first of October. The Montenvers railway, from here to Chamonix has its annual closure every year, for maintenance work, during October. There were no trains. The rain came an hour or so later, as I was trudging endlessly down through the forests back towards Chamonix. Aside from the tripod, my gear was safe inside several layers of waterproof bag. I had a jacket, but no over-trousers, and my boots had filled with rain many times over by the time I reached my apartment. The electrical storm had been violent but short-lived, fortunately. The rain carried on all night.

Fully two years later, I found that half-used roll of film still in the film back in my camera bag. I quickly frittered away the other five shots and sent the roll off for developing. The puzzle I’d mentioned earlier was that I had no idea at all where those photos had subsequently gone. When I arrived back in the UK from my recent trip, I nearly took my office apart in my search, until there, tucked into the back of a negative folder, was the plastic strip which I’d done nothing with since the day it had returned from the processing lab. Taking the film strip from the plastic was the start of a trip back down memory lane which has become the blog you’re now reading.

The photo at the head of this blog is one of the five I shot at Le Signal that day. As good as, if not better than I remember it!

My blog title this time is a James Taylor song. Of course, I didn’t.

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Lonesome Road

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I was asked an interesting, though perhaps impertinent question recently.

A friend asked “When do you think you were in your prime?” The impertinence is, of course, in the assumption that I might not think I’m there yet! I managed to dodge the point, but it nonetheless exercised me a lot on my 1,000km road journey from home out to the French Alps recently. Once I’d arrived, (and adapted to life with snapped tendons in one hand, as a result of a stupid mishap -packing a bag, of all things!) it was a few days more before some kind of answer dawned on me. If it turns out to be the right answer, I can pinpoint “my prime” to two or three days in September 2011. Yes, that precisely!

The trigger for coming to this particular conclusion was revisiting the Col d’Iseran, above Val d’Isere, on the edge of the Vanoise Alps. It’s the highest paved road in the Alps, at 2,770m, and the fifth highest in Europe .  As my photo at the head of this piece shows, the summit’s nothing beautiful, and it’s little-changed since my first visit, in September 2011. That visit was a rushed job, as I’ll explain, in what might be a bit of a meandering blog. Bear with me.

I was in the Alps back then on the nearest I’ve ever come to “an escape”. I’d just managed to get early retirement from “real work”, I was at last making a good recovery from clinical depression, and, after a few setbacks, I was finally off antidepressants. I was otherwise physically well, and I seized my chance. I found myself with just over two weeks free before the European Masters Games, in Lignano, near Venice in Italy, where I was due to race in the 200 metres, and six weeks completely blank in the diary after that.

Then, my Swiss friend Pino asked whether I wanted to race in a track meeting in Bellinzona, on the edge Italian Lakes, on the weekend before the Games, and a plan quickly fell into place. I’d take my big motorbike, loaded up with luggage, cameras, and running gear, and set off for Lignano via Bellinzona. Just about the only intermediate pre-planned point was to be a Friday night stay at Pino’s house in Luzern, from where we’d head south next morning to Bellinzona, conveniently just the other side of the Gotthard Pass.

Fast forward a week after I’d set off from home. I’d called in on friends in Annecy. I’d ridden my motorbike over the Col du Galibier (a long-time ambition), and I was having fun. I’d been given three months paid leave in lieu of notice when I left my job. Therefore, I was even being paid for all this!

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Top of the Galibier

I’d reached Briançon. I had a long day planned from there, across a couple of big road passes, through the Mont Blanc Tunnel, and thence on to the Swiss motorway system, aiming to arrive at Pino’s in Luzern for dinner. Very do-able, but without much of a time contingency should I encounter delays.

It was bright and sunny as I drove from Briançon, over into Italy to Bardonècchia, to take the Fréjus tunnel – a necessary and useful short-cut back to France onto the first stage of my route. The first warning sign I saw was a couple of kilometres from the end of the motorway into Bardonècchia. “Tunnel Chiuso”. Closed. Closed?? It was true, too. There was a train jammed in the tunnel. It would be closed all day, at the very least. Suddenly I faced a 100 kilometre diversion, via the Col du Mont Cenis, to get back on track. Strangely, I have no recollection of that piece of road at all. It was just a case of get on and do it.

I took a brief lunch in Bonneval sur Arc, smugly patting myself on the back for surviving the tunnel misfortune, but very aware that any time contingency on the journey had now almost vanished. The Col d’Iseran, where this blog began, was next. From south to north it’s steep but not a hard route. I hardly even paused at the top, and dropped down the innumerable hairpins and crazy pieces of road through Val d’Isère, past Tignes, and on to the foot of the Col du Petit St Bernard, my last challenge before the Mont Blanc Tunnel from Courmeyeur to Chamonix.

I don’t like the Petit St Bernard Pass. It’s very twisty and 30 km from bottom to top. They don’t even bother to number the hairpins on it, something which often, because they usually number from the top downwards, gives a good idea how you’re progressing. The road over it has been there certainly since the Romans. As has some of its current surface, I think. The next setback was at the 2,188m summit of the pass, just back over in Italy. It was a large, hand-written sign in the window of the café beside the road. “Tunnel Monte Bianco Chiuso” it pronounced. What? I parked up and went in to ask. Yes, there had been a vehicle fire in the tunnel earlier in the day. There were no signs about this on the French side of the Petit St Bernard. The Italian café guy just shrugged in a very French way.

Over a strong “doppio”, I sat with map and satnav, working out my options. I realise only now, that the thought of simply giving it all up as a bad job never once occurred to me.

GPS Jane selected a shortcut avoiding Courmayeur, by descending the Col d’Arpi road, to Morgex in the Aosta Valley, and thence via Aosta and the Grand St Bernard Tunnel. From there it would be downhill all the way to Martigny, and those Swiss motorways. I’d done Aosta to Martigny a few years before. It would be hard work, and add maybe another 100km to my ever-lengthening day.

The Italian descent of the Petit San Bernard Pass is steep and convoluted, but the Col d’Arpi as an alternative was a mistake. A tiny road, through forests, with more hairpins, and more blind, tight hairpins, than I could ever have imagined. It was, to be frank, scary and the thought of that descent scares me still. I hit all the rest of the traffic displaced by the Mont Blanc Tunnel closure on the road from Morgex to Aosta. The traffic jams, on top of normal Friday evening, late holiday-season rush-hour, were grim, but at least the Grand St Bernard Tunnel was definitely open!

I rang Pino from Martigny. It was already gone 7pm and I’d missed the dinner his wife Barbara had prepared for us. Pino advised me to avoid any route to Luzern that went via the Swiss capital, Berne. A bee-line would have taken me through Berne and, as a result, I discovered that I had about four hours on the Swiss motorways ahead of me. The route GPS Jane plotted across Switzerland remains a bit of a mystery to me to this day. I was beyond arguing with her, and just followed every instruction. My body and mind had, it seemed, gone to some other, non-worldly place. If I’d become tired by the journey to this point, I now seemed to have transcended that. I was alert, and it wasn’t coffee! I had total “tunnel vision” on the motorways, to the extent of almost forgetting to stop for fuel. Normal bodily functions had suspended themselves. I’d only eaten a bar of chocolate and downed a double espresso since lunchtime, but I had no thirst or hunger that I recall. I’d been riding my motorbike for ten hours with hardly a break, yet I felt totally focussed and comfortable. This had never happened to me before, and certainly never has since!

I recall endless miles of overnight motorway roadworks on the final stretch to Luzern. Then I arrived. I dragged some luggage off the bike, made my apologies to Barbara for my late arrival. Although it was now after 11pm, Pino announced that he was going to take me on a quick tour of Luzern. We could take in a beer and a burger on the way, he promised! The man is nothing if not an enthusiast in everything he does – a medal-winning decathlete and (in the years after what I’m describing here) also a cancer survivor. Of course, all I really wanted was a bed and oblivion! I got that at about 1.30am, after a day some of which has since seared itself into my memory.

Breakfast was at 7.30. Pino and I were due to be racing (and in his case, throwing too) in Bellinzona in the early afternoon, remember? We got there on time – yet more miles on the clock for me.

I felt strangely relaxed and focussed while warming up on the track. I assumed it was a result of accumulated mental and physical fatigue preventing me from sharpening up before my first race, but my results said otherwise. That afternoon, I placed second in a classy 100 metres race, and an hour or so later won the 200 metres convincingly. Both of my race times were my personal bests for the 2011 season. This was itself a shock and surprise, given that a month previously, I’d been racing in the World Masters Championships in California. There, I’d contributed second leg to our silver medal-winning Great Britain sprint relay squad, so I’d had a good year up to this point.

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Pino and I after the 200m. My prize was several litres of local apple juice!

And I still had it in me to stay awake through a big get-together with many Swiss and German masters athletes in Bellinzona that evening, and to drive mountainous miles on the Sunday to the fringes of the Italian Dolomites. I expected supreme fatigue to overtake me in a day or so. It never did! I still look back on that weekend in 2011 with wonderment. Revisiting parts of the route in the last week or so has impressed on me that it really was a journey out of the ordinary.

So, back to the impertinent question: when was I “in my prime”? One weekend in September 2011 is going to be a very strong contender!

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A Quarter Hour of Fame

DIFuVs5WsAEYm76.jpg-largeWell, probably not even that, If I’m honest.

This post is really just to blow the dust off this blog, which has somehow managed to remain idle for three months. There are new posts coming soon, I promise – providing the weather on my upcoming trip to the Alps is kind.

If you follow my other blog (here), you’ll know that I’m a pretty competitive person. We athletes tend to be. It’s a key part of the job description, of course. However, in terms of my photography, competition has very seldom entered into it. I shouldn’t think I’ve ever entered more than three or four competitions in my life. Be that as it may, I’ve won two!

My local council recently asked via social media for some photos of Maidstone. I’d recently tidied up a collection of stuff I’d taken in late 2016 and early 2017 that were lingering on my iPhone. I sent them four of these and promptly forgot all about it. Social media is like that. So, I was quite surprised, at the end of August, when they contacted me to say I’d won their “Love Maidstone” competition with the photo you see at the top of this blog. I found out there was a decent prize too!

The photo looks across the Millennium footbridge over the Medway. The building in it is part of the complex that houses the gym I belong to. It’s a little piece of Maidstone I see quite often. I photographed it again recently, and only when I compared that shot to the competition winner did I notice the rather ugly crane in the background of the earlier shot!

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My first, and only other competition winner, by the way, was way back in 1994, when “Amateur Photographer” magazine was after photos on the theme of autumn. I’d been in the Derbyshire Peak District a few weekends previously, and had a shot I thought fitted the brief. This one:

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Of course, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” as it is said. Or was said in Greece in the 3rd century BC. I had to look it up. I thought it was Shakespeare, but wasn’t sure! Never let it be said this blog isn’t an education. It’s probably the reason I don’t regard competitions as worth the effort: too hit and miss to bother with. A great example of this was a photo I saw very recently in a local camera club show in a local shopping centre. These things always make me shudder. This one certainly did.

Someone had painted a “faithful” copy of JMW Turner’s “The Fighting Temeraire”. Quite why, we were never told. However, it was hardly “faithful” and had been rendered in a ghastly pale blue tone. How do I know this? Well, because a member of said camera club had then photographed the copy of the Turner painting… and had actually entered this into the camera club show….and won a prize. Put your ear to the ground in St Paul’s Cathedral. The churning sound you can hear will be old JMW turning in his grave.

 

My blog title this time comes from Andy Warhol, via the Albion Band.

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Like a Full Force Gale

As I get older, and have more and more to look back on, I realise that I’ve had my fair share of “epic” experiences. Nowadays, to the “yoof”, the word “epic” can describe something as banal as a pop song. I’m using it here in it’s older sense. You know: those “how the hell did we get into this?” and, more to the point, “how the hell are we going to get out of this?” situations.

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The Seven Sisters, looking towards Birling Gap. Wind 50mph, westerly! Read on…

As I’ve said in this blog several times in the past, I spent a great deal of time over a twenty five year period in the Italian Dolomites, leading groups on the mountains. The groups ranged from virtual hill-walking rookies principally interested in wild flowers, through to select bands of hairy-arsed mountain lovers, often with considerably more hours on the clock in the hills than me. We had some memorable Dolomites epics.

Uppermost in my mind when I think “epic” is the thunderstorm, sleet and snow I sat out with one of my groups high on a route on a flank of the 3,200 metre Tofana di Rozes. My group included (I kid you not) one of the first ascentionists of the third highest mountain in the world, and the first person ever to do an east-west crossing of the whole of the European Alps on skis. We’d made a group decision to “go for it”, based on my assurance of exit routes if anything came of the forecast, but (at that point) completely invisible, thunderstorm and snow. This was mid July, by the way! These were pre-internet, and pretty much pre-mobile ‘phone times too. The best local weather outlook was written on a piece of paper pinned up in the window of the local mountain guides bureau in Cortina d’Ampezzo.

The storm that caught us sneakily snuck up from completely the opposite side of the Tofana mountain group, almost unseen until sudden, huge down-draughts of wind hammered us, almost out of the blue. Within a few minutes, there was a considerable electrical storm going, and big hail was turning to particularly clinging snow. Our good fortune was to have reached a spot where I could sit the group together, in an area the textbooks would have regarded as being as safe from lightning strikes as possible. We sat there realising that such things were, however, hit and miss issues, pretty literally in the lap of the gods. George and Hamish regaled the group (about nine all told) with stories of their own thunderstorm dramas. Whether this was quite as helpful for the more nervous members of the group as they thought must remain a moot point! We lived to tell the tale, and retreated that day with only a slight sense of “tail between the legs”!

Retreat

Retreat

The full story is one for another time. I even found a few photos from my colour slide archives recently. What I really wanted to do was contrast that epic with a very much more recent one (ok, not so potentially life-threatening) that befell me quite recently, and which was equally surprising.

I had the opportunity, at half an hour’s notice to go, to be dropped off at one end of the Seven Sisters, on the south Sussex coast, and to be picked up a few hours later in Eastbourne. So, as it was bright and sunny and the walk would begin barely fifty miles from home, I didn’t think to look at the weather forecast before setting off. Well, after all, this was “just” going to be over the Seven Sisters. I’d run along them several times, including as the finale of a memorable Seven Sisters Marathon. The terrain, while undulating, was hardly that challenging, was it?

The first big gust of wind hit me on an innocent-looking approach hill above the Cuckmere River, overlooking Cuckmere Haven. It was from here I first noticed the immense band of swirling surf fringing the Cuckmere shingle bank. And when I say “hit me”, I mean exactly that. I was knocked flat by what I’ve heard called a “slapdown” wind. I quickly flicked open the weather app on my ‘phone. It warned of 35mph winds, gusting to 50mph in exposed areas. And I still needed to walk to my lift home from Eastbourne at 3pm.

The wind was pretty much a direct westerly. Fine, I rationalised: on my back. Better that than a side-wind to push me towards the cliff edges of the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head! But, as it turned out, only just. My peaked hat was attached, at the back of my head, to a retaining cord for my glasses – a quickly rigged way, I thought, not to lose my hat. When another huge gust nevertheless ripped my hat from my head, it very nearly dragged my glasses from my face as well. I realised I was being complacent. There would be no rules today!

I’d brought a walking pole with me. I have one that doubles as a good camera support. It also made for something the wind frequently poked between my legs as I walked, like a stick being shoved into the wheel of a bicycle. Crash! Hello grass, again! I walked like a drunk. The wind gave no discernible assistance on the steady upslopes, either. Atop the first rise from Cuckmere, I thought the downhill sections between the Sisters would be periods of calm. Not a bit of it. This wind hugged the ground and never gave a moment’s respite.

There have been occasions when I’ve felt that the wind had become a personal enemy, doing battle with me individually. Cycling for two days around Ireland’s Ring of Kerry in the early 1980s, I stopped for the night halfway, after a day fighting a south westerly gale for several hours. Next morning, the weather had swung a full 180 degrees and the second section section was directly into a fierce north easter.

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Northern Norway, in one hell of a wind!

Crossing a big frozen lake in northern Norway on skis, pulling a sledge containing my personal gear, was like dragging several tons, bent double into a screaming headwind in temperatures around minus 20 degrees C, forever wondering how fast frost-nip would set in on any exposed flesh. Yes, the wind has always hated me, and today was just a reminder.

Back in Sussex, however,  needed a lunch stop well before the cafe at Birling Gap, and huddled behind some gorse bushes. The tea was literally being blown out of the cup from my flask faster than I could drink it!

The day had been one of bright sunshine and blue sky from the off. Despite the wind, it was warm. Real sunburn conditions, so it was as necessary to cover up as it had been on that Norwegian sled tour! Not for frost-nip this time, however! The other menace was salt spray. There was foam from the surf being lifted and deposited on the clifftop grass, and the air hung thick with salt. I was having to clean my specs every ten minutes, and had almost given up taking the camera from my bag. Most of the photos I took were on my excellent iPhone 7, which is continuing to go everywhere with me.

A few more falls, but happily no knockout (remember televised wrestling?) and it was over. As the highest point of the day, Beachy Head gave a few scary moments of swirly wind, but the main force of the gale appeared to be spent by now. By the time I reached Eastbourne, you’d have wondered what the fuss was about.

Around four epic hours. Sometimes those events make you feel really alive. Sometimes they just make you want to be somewhere else. The jury’s still out on this particular day.

Any readers who are Van Morrison fans will recognise my blog title this time.

 

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Black and White

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The two months since last I blogged here has slipped by very quickly in some senses. In photographic terms, I can’t say I’ve been particularly active, although that’s not been for the want of will. My other blog tells the story. I’ve had a pretty significant injury to my left shoulder. Pain and discomfort from this has dragged me down on several occasions, and made a number of my normal activities difficult or impossible. I missed over three months training for my track athletics activities, and I’ve had to ditch any race plans for 2017 for now, while I work on getting mended.

Another casualty was getting out with a camera. For some of the time, travel, other than on foot for relatively short distances, was too painful, and carrying or holding any of my usual cameras was difficult. What came to my rescue was having significant opportunity to use and get to know my iPhone 7Plus. I blogged my first impressions of this last time I was here.

The idea had formed in my mind just before New Year of doing something like a three month project using nothing but the iPhone. I’d also had the notion of shooting much more black and white work. Why not scratch both itches at once, and shoot some mono with the ‘phone? Simple. And it was, in some ways.

I’d done very little monochrome stuff for quite a few years, save for what boiled down to seven or eight pieces used within my recent River Medway exhibition. Half of these came from some medium format film of some considerable vintage, which I needed to use or lose. The others were from a cluster of photos that didn’t quite cut it for me as digital colour shots, but which made fantastic images when rendered into monochrome using a simple plug-in to my normal digital storage software. To give an example, one such image captured really great skies in reflection in the Medway, but owing to recent rain etc, the river itself was a nasty khaki brown colour. Turning the shot into monochrome hid that, and gave a very satisfying picture.

Shooting black and white on the iPhone offered several options to me. I already had two very simple apps on the ‘phone for shooting without colour: “SimplyB&W” and “B&W Master” I’m a skinflint when it comes to apps, and both were free, or very cheap. Both offered a minor range of post-shot tweaking. So did the option to convert a shot to black and white within the basic Apple Camera app. And, as already mentioned, I have a plug-in on my computer that can do competent mono rendering from a colour image. There are, of course, loads of apps available, claiming to offer black and white images. However, many seem to require “in app” purchases, even to achieve pretty basic functionality. There are also many with no user reviews on show. Never a good sign, in my experience.

However, remember what they say about silk purses and sow’s ears? Experience and experimentation has showed me that none of the above are particularly forgiving to a poorly-shot image (“garbage in, garbage out” as it were), but there was more to it than that.

If I conveniently set aside my confession about a couple of my recent exhibition shots, earlier in this piece, my overall view is that good monochrome images are not merely colour shots reduced to a series of greyscale tones, even if, technically-speaking, that’s exactly what they are and will always be. No, good mono landscape work, to satisfy me, has to be able to stand on its own two feet.  This is obviously a bit (or maybe a lot) of a personal thing, and personally I love black and whites with expressive skies, reflections (or both!) and a full spectrum of tone from deep black to near-pure white.

So, the question, and the quest, came down to establishing whether the iPhone could give me images with the required traits, and moreover, could do this not by accident, but when I wanted a particular shot to come out as a good black and white photo from the outset. I am not, and have never been, heavily into editing my images. I tweak and crop, but don’t ever go much beyond that. There are two reasons. One is that I always think hard editing shows, either as rough work, or, as often, the opposite – images with never a hair out of place. You just never get that with landscapes! And the second reason is that I’ve mostly avoided gathering the skills to attempt much very technical editing anyway.

Shooting on black and white film is actually, I think, rather more straightforward than shooting digital monochrome. Slap on a red, orange or yellow filter for a (pretty much) guaranteed good sky, for example. This doesn’t work on the iPhone even with a dedicated b&w app, suggesting to me that it really takes a colour photo first, then immediately converts it to greyscale. I’ve hand-held filters over my iPhone lenses in the past, and this is still a piece of work in progress, by the way.

So, I’m writing this in March, and since New Year, the iPhone has been the only camera I’ve used for landscape work. And boy, am I impressed! Here’s a few examples.

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I’ve a few weeks more of my #shootmoremono experiment to go. I’m looking forward to the arrival of the Spring skies in particular. Fingers crossed!

And if you’ve been here before, you’ll know I like to give my blogs a title linked in some way to music. I struggled with this, until Mr Google came up with the perfect title from a 1970s song by the band Three Dog Night.

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Better Things

 

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Top prize to anyone who knows the song that has given the title to this chapter of my blog. Answer later.

Like many kids after Christmas, I’ve been playing with a new toy. In many aspects of life, I am what they call a “serial monogamist”. I tend to stick with what I like, which is usually something that works for me,. It was usually chosen after hours and hours of careful deliberation. The toy on this occasion is (only) the 3rd “smartphone” I’ve ever owned. It’s an iPhone 7 Plus.

When I bought my iPhone 4, life had me working increasingly as a one-man band, needing to be self-supporting with data and access to information. Its camera was, to me back then, just an extra, and a very optional one at that. If pressed, I’d use it as a visual notebook, but that was about it. After all, I had “real cameras” if I wanted anything serious, didn’t I? And I’d still maintain that that was a justifiable point of view, even then.

Upgrading to an iPhone 6 was a game-changer. I’d gone freelance. The trainer wheels were off, as it were, and in the areas of work I was involved in, particularly early on, there was a premium on being versatile, mobile and, above all, to have backup in case of disasters. You learn as you go along, and the lessons can be hard. Like turning up to a shoot, seventy miles from home, with both of my DSLR cameras, both minus their batteries, which were being recharged – back at home. No time to get there and back, no one to borrow from. The shoot had to be done with the iPhone. And it was. And it was fine. And I lived to fight another day. And I was impressed.

In past blogs here I’ve made no secret of how attached I had become to that iPhone. Possibly a quarter of the images in my recent exhibition began life as iPhone 6 frames. I do a lot of image stitching to make larger, detailed panoramas etc, but there were even a few shots in that show that were simple, single iPhone frames. OK, the image resolution may have been pushed up before they were printed, but the basic images used were very fit for purpose from the outset.

And now, I’ve taken delivery of Apple’s current flagship, the 7 Plus. It’s larger, but still perfectly pocket-able. A number of reviews I’d read while wondering whether to take the plunge assured me that in many ways, the 7 Plus was the “photographer’s phone”. I’m now testing the thing to see if I believe that. This blog is only a first instalment. I’ll keep you posted about how we get on.

I’ve struggled with illness and injury recently, and my opportunities to get out and shoot old haunts has been a little limited. That’s not been helped by major construction work along the River Medway path to create a cycleway, involving months of path closure – and months more still to come. However, that’s a story for another day. And then, life’s fruit machine came up with a row of cherries this week when I found myself both fit enough and ready to put the iPhone 7 Plus though its paces, on a brilliantly clear, cold and utterly, utterly still morning somewhere along the river path where access was still possible. Believe me, it was a belter of a morning!

I’d pretty much set the ‘phone and its apps up from the backup of my iPhone 6. I’d fussed around trying unsuccessfully to find a replacement for my favourite mobile stitching app, Autostitch. That’s still a work in progress. You’ll find some scathing reviews in the App Store of some of the turkeys I’ve tried to use, by the way. I have PTGui on my iMac at home, which I still rate as the best image stitcher for that combination of speed, quality and versatility, but often, I want to produced some joined up work while out and about, and I’d had a very happy relationship for over five years with the original Autostitch. It’s gone because Google bought out the company that made it, and then stopped offering it. Thanks a bunch.

That aside, my “in-phone” camera app needs are modest, and restricted to simple adjustments, cropping, etc. Oh, and storage space. The 16gb of my iPhone6 might have sounded adequate when it was new, but I’m now in a world where I have 128gb at my fingertips. I have also to keep reminding myself that my “workhorse” Nikon cameras are 12 megapixel models, and that I now have a “mobile phone” with a camera boasting that same number. OK, on a tiny sensor, but wow!

I also didn’t set out to do “this was then and this is now” head to head comparisons. What’s the point? I wanted to test out whether I could live with the new girl and whether, when I pressed her buttons, she came up with the goods.

The button pressed most often is, of course, the on-screen shutter button. On many occasions, I’ve been grateful for the simulated shutter sound the earlier iPhones provided to confirm a photo had been taken, and for the ability to turn this off when doing more candid work. What got me was that the iPhone 7 Plus was, by default, silent. Full 30 minutes of experimentation failed to uncover how to make the shutter make the shutter noise, and I eventually resorted to an online search. This reassured me that I most certainly wasn’t alone in my frustration and wonderment at what Apple had been thinking. The remedy is there to be had, but finding it is utterly unintuitive. I’ll leave you that joy yourself if you’re making the same upgrade.

And can any adult in their right mind tell me what Apple’s “Live Photo” thing is for? I was warned to turn it off, because it degrades images shot in low light, and the images taken with it comprise a piece of video and then a jpeg file. What? This eats up storage on the phone like mad, and on any device you download to. The articles advising on this “innovation” said that you can turn it off, but forgot to mention that, as soon as you next turn the iPhone 7 camera back on, “Live Photo” turns itself back on too. Again, there is a solution if you delve deeper. Intuitive it is, once again, sadly not. I’ll leave you to search that one, too.

But, oh the image quality! Initially, I thought (sceptic that I can be) that the larger screen, and a Retina screen at that, might have been flattering what I was taking. As I mentioned, the day was blessed with possibly the most perfect conditions I’ve ever experienced out by the river, and I was prepared to be flattered. However, downloading stuff when I got home revealed that I was indeed mining pure gold.

I shot occasionally in the “mono” setting, in keeping with a New Year resolution to shoot more black and whites.

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Four images were stitched in PTGui to produce this. It’s a nice, classical, monochrome image at one level. But look how the 7Plus has even been able to capture underwater detail in the centre foreground. There was nothing like a polariser filter involved, and no post production editing save stitching and cropping.

The Medway where I was shooting was quite astonishingly clear that morning. At one place I stood, I could see leaves very clearly through more than a foot of water. There was a branch reflected in that water, and I wondered if, by chance, the 7Plus could catch both. There was going to be a “depth of field” pun in there somewhere originally. This was a test passed with flying, if rather muted, colours.

 

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Remember, this is a mobile ‘phone camera, being used hand-held we’re talking about!

I’m also (predictably) a fan of the “panorama” facility in the standard Camera app on the iPhone. Here’s the stretch of the Medway I was shooting on the day in question. One sweep, a single panoramic frame:

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This episode has become more than long enough. I’ll stop here, but, like Arnie, “I will be back”.

Oh, and the song behind this time’s title? “Better Things” is by Ray Davies of the Kinks. He got awarded a knighthood in the recent New Year Honours. He’s long been one of my heroes, and I was slightly sad he didn’t tell them where to stuff it.

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They Paved Paradise….

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I have a large collection of music. If you read this blog, even occasionally, you may have realised I try to find a vaguely appropriate song title or lyrics to head up the page. Not very long ago, I chose “…you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”, from Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi”, about an issue that, by coincidence, I will be coming back to at the end of this new chapter. My title here is from the same song. It hurts me to have to use it, but it’s the best I can think of for what you see in the photo above, and for what follows.

You won’t need any reminding that my photographic focus – obsession almost – for quite a while now has been my local stretch of the River Medway, which I can reach within a couple of minutes from home. My recent photo exhibition was a prayer of thanks to the River and what it has shown me over the last four or five years.

There was a twist. On the very day the show opened, work began to turn several miles of the Medway riverside path, my access route for everything I’d shot, into a cycle path. This is no cosmetic alteration, however. For a start, it is requiring the path to be closed to all users for a period that may be as long as the next six months. My exhibition thus became a time-capsule both of views that are about to change significantly, and views which, no matter how much they might have inspired my visitors, will be inaccessible for quite a long time.

As a regular visitor to the riverside, I wasn’t taken in by the County Council’s claim that the public notices detailing the work to be done had been posted “at the right time”. All along, an absence of information about what exactly was going to be done, and particularly when, has been a hallmark of this project, ever since news of it first appeared in the local press at the beginning of the year. I’d regularly met surveyors etc along the path, but they seemed to have been briefed not to give very much away. None, when questioned, would ever tell me the size or exact nature of the path for which they were preparing, and were very uninformative about things like tree clearance. Much the same story was shared with me by dog-walkers and other regular river path users, who had asked them the same questions.

Nevertheless, less drastic river path “improvement” work had happened before, and was soon softened by nature. I was prepared to give the proposals the benefit of the doubt.

Until work actually began. That’s what the photo at the head of this blog emphasises. This path is a 2.5 metre wide, black-topped monster. The photo comes from a section of the route where, to be kind, there is room to accommodate that kind of width. However, such information as has been published makes it clear that this will be the scale of the path throughout its length. Where the river path sits between the fence for the Medway Valley rail line and the edge of the rive bank, there are many sections where accommodating 2.5 metres of engineered blacktop will pretty much fill the whole space available. Already, several apparently healthy trees have been felled, and others have ominous blue crosses on their trunks. This seems to indicate they will be “in the way”. Can you imagine such a wide, tarmac path being added to the route in the photo below? It may already have been done, by the time you read this.

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I’m no “nimby”, and take on board all of the points that have been made to me, about opening up disabled access, and encouraging cycling. My concerns are over the wholly disproportionate nature of the path being laid, plus the risk that it will become a ready route for illicit motorcycle use, and access for fly-tippers. Both have been happily absent to date. Needless to say, my emails asking the named County Council contact for information and reassurances on these points have gone unanswered.

Oh, and Joni got it right. They’re also putting up more than one “parking lot”.

When I began this piece, I said I’d return to my earlier blog. Well, yesterday, I made an early morning return to my favourite part of the river path. You’ll know the spot. I’ve used photos from it to head three of the last five instalments of this blog. Yesterday was deeply cold, with particularly thick frost. The winter sun hardly reaches this area before noon.

Over recent months, what remains of my favourite viewpoint has become thickly overgrown with Himalayan Balsam and Japanese Hogweed. These had inevitably died back a little in the autumn. The frost had felled them further still. I had a walking pole with me, and it was amazingly easy to hack a path and a clearance in the brittle remains, to give me back access to within feet of the spot I had once photographed from so often. As the exact spot had eroded back into the river, I couldn’t recreate it to the inch – despite the water’s edge being frozen! I shall be doing my best henceforth to keep this area clear, though balsam and hogweed are voracious and speedy, and I don’t know if I’ll win.

Thankfully, at least for now, there are no plans to extend the cycle path to this area of the river. But for how long?

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Cry Me A River

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Well, maybe not to the extent of actual, real tears, but as I sit down to write this, I’m pretty made-up, emotionally. Why? Because I’m just home from dismantling the “Watching The River Flow” exhibition, which I’ve lived with for the last month.

No, actually much longer than that. I committed to making the best of my photos of my local stretch of the River Medway into an exhibition about 13 months ago. I began taking the photos as long ago as 2011. The story has been told in one form or another on this blog occasionally since then. When I began, I didn’t have any thought of an exhibition in mind. I held a more general show in February 2014 and included in it three or four pictures of the Medway near to where I live. These were well-received and two even sold. That show got exhibitions out of my system for a little while, but 18 months later, I made an optimistic booking of the “Below 65” Gallery for November 2016, and it was suddenly “a thing”.

At the time, and for a few months, it seemed a pretty distant “thing” too. Gradually, gradually, a collection of the cream of my photos began to form, although I was, of course, adding to the pile very regularly and often. To be honest, I was still juggling the selection as late as three weeks before the show opened.

My last blog here was of the ever so slight sense of anticlimax and anxiety that arrives once the show-building is over, stuff is on the wall, and the artist is waiting for his public to arrive – and wondering whether they even will.

And now, they’ve been, and gone. A thousand thanks to all of the friends, old and new, who visited, encouraged and supported the show. To those of you who bought stuff – work off the walls, unframed prints, souvenir mugs, or Christmas cards – thank you especially. You have a piece of what became a significant part of my life in recent times. Care for it well, please.

The exhibition enjoyed good and regular foot-fall pretty much from the off. The local paper screwed up on publicity initially, but things really picked up once news of the show had appeared in print. It would be facile to categorise the visitors into “buddies, browsers and buyers”, although I was supported by all three. Highlights for me came from meeting old friends, in some cases after quite a break, and in sharing “my river” with everyone. I’m going to remember for a long time the local fisherman who took me on a tour of my own show, and told me the fishermen’s local names for nearly every stretch of the Medway I’d photographed. I had no idea there were such things. Many running friends visited, and the support from amongst the Maidstone Parkrun regulars, who I photograph almost every Saturday morning, was huge. Thank you all.

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I sold ten pieces of work during the course of the exhibition, out of the 33 framed prints on display. As exhibitions like this go, I think that’s impressive. It’s certainly a relief. I’d hoped for some sponsorship to underwrite the show, but ended up self-funding it all. I’m much less out of pocket now than I ever expected to be!

The absolute stars of this for me have been Elaine and Chris, who run the Gilbert&Clark framing and printing shop upstairs to the “Below 65” gallery. I’ve had the benefit and great joy of their company, skill and experience right through the life of this show. Their printing and framing skill has wowed my visitors every day and will continue to do so, I hope, as I try to find homes for the pieces of work as yet unsold. I cannot recommend them too highly. If you need printing and framing, look no further.

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And would I do this again? Well, not for a while, I think. I’m open to offers, of course. I’m not currently working on anything that (yet) has the makings of a full-on exhibition. But as little as two years ago, that’s pretty much what I’d have said about my Medway work. We’ll all just have to wait and see what happens.

Now, where’s that celebratory special whisky?

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After The Thrill

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So, after all the miles walked, all the photos taken, and the agonies of selecting an exhibition’s-worth, “Watching The River Flow” opened this morning, 1 November. I blogged recently about how I felt after the dry run session a couple of days ago, before the frames made it to the walls. My feelings now it has opened are a different bundle of emotions: excitement, anticipation, anti-climax are all in there.

How’s that, you ask? Well, everything about this exhibition still excites me. The creation of it, the process of selecting the work, and of seeing it printed and framed to perfection by experts, etc have never failed to excite me. I’ve lived for the best part of a year in anticipation of this show, since I committed to holding it at the Below 65 gallery. That pre-opening day anticipation has now given way to that of awaiting the reaction of others to it. And anti-climax? Well, the town was so quiet today – one of the first working days since the kids went back to school after half term – and precisely nobody visited during the first morning. Plenty of time, though, and I don’t know what I really expected? A long queue of people trailing down the road from the gallery door? Get real, Tom. I’ve not got kids, but perhaps the feeling of walking round the completed exhibition was a little bit like the emotion of seeing your eldest start school?

The regular reader of this blog will know that music plays a huge part of my emotional life. I only know one song about exhibitions and that kind of performance (because that’s what it is – a performance- when you boil it down to its basics). That’s what the wonderful Dave Cousins described when he wrote “Hanging In The Gallery” for Strawbs back in the mid 1970s for the album “Nomadness“. The original track isn’t on YouTube, but even better than that is this live version  of the song, sung and played by Dave himself. I just love his “strawberries and cream” acoustic guitar, too.

I have a little playlist of music that will occasionally play gently in the background for visitors to the exhibition. This started life with me collecting “river-related” songs from my rather large musical archive at home. The tracks accompany Bob Dylan’s “Watching The River Flow”, which gave the show its title. It strayed a little from rivers etc, to the point that I couldn’t resist including “Hanging in the Gallery” in the mix.

So, there I was, half an hour after the show opened, sitting on my own in the gallery, having a first run-through of the music and wondering where everybody was. Oh boy, did “Hanging in the Gallery” hit me hard. I’ve taken the liberty of printing the words here, in case you didn’t or couldn’t go to YouTube.

Is it the painter or the picture hanging in the gallery?
Admired by countless thousands 
Who attempt to read the secrets of his vision of his very soul.
Is it the painter or the picture hanging in the gallery?
Or is it but a still life
Of his own interpretation
Of the way that God had made us in the image of His eye?

Is it the sculptor or the sculpture standing in the gallery?
Touched by fleeting strangers
Who desire to feel the strength of hands that realised a form of life.
Is it the sculptor or the sculpture standing in the gallery?
Or is it but the tenderness
With which his hands were guided
To discard the unessentials and reveal the perfect truth?

Is it the actor or the drama playing to the gallery?
Heard in every corner
Of the theatre of cruelty that masks the humour in his speech.
Is it the actor or the drama playing to the gallery?
Or is it but the character
Of any single member of the audience
That forms the plot of each and every play?

Is it the singer or his likeness hanging in the gallery?
Tongue black, still and swollen,
His eyes staring from their sockets, he is silent now, will sing no more.
Is it the singer or his likeness hanging in the gallery?
Or is it but his conscience,
Insecurity, and loneliness,
When destiny becomes at last the cause of his demise?

© Dave Cousins

Some might find the words a bit morbid, but to me they say everything about putting your reputation on the line. I’m not expecting to be: “Admired by countless thousands who attempt to read the secrets of his vision of his very soul” of course. The line of questioning is more likely to be along the lines of which camera I used, or what time of year some of the photos were taken. Nevertheless, for me, what has become the show has underpinned much of my life in the last few years, and the thoughts I’m having about it do indeed represent some of my own “conscience, insecurity and loneliness” as an artist.  I’ll bet there are many others who’ve done what I’m doing who would agree.

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