Places

There are places I’ll remember

All my life,

Though some have changed.

Some for better,

Some for ever.

Some have gone,

But some remain.

(John Lennon)

As we came out of lockdown during July, I began spending two or three days a week visiting (or rather, re-visiting) a lot of places I’d had on a vague mental “tick list” for some time. Many of these, though by no means all, held associations for me from times in my distant, or fairly distant, past. Maps helped string some of these together for longer Sunday walks. Most of these “places” were in Kent or East Sussex. It was great fun. Few were in any sense on the beaten track, and cunning use of the path alongside the Royal Military Canal, coupled with the well-signposted but not too well-frequented Saxon Shore Way, facilitated a whole string of circular outings across the Romney Marsh and the downs above Folkestone,

The Romney Marsh was an area I’d spent much time exploring as a kid and young teenager, We had family holidays on the coast at Littlestone on Sea. I was never one for the sea or the beach. On foot or, a bit later, on my heavy old Elswick “clunker” pedal bike, I was pretty much free to roam as far as my three-speed gears would take me. Always, I remember, those bike rides seemed to be into the prevailing wind, never with it. And it always, mysteriously, swung into the opposite direction around the time I turned for home.

Thus it was that I got to visit most of the (to me at that time) spooky old medieval “wool churches” on the Marsh, or, in complete contrast, marvel at the scale of the building site for the Dungeness B nuclear power station, alongside its (at that time, still-operational) forbear, Dungeness A. Such things, and the acres of uncluttered sky above it all, were well outside the usual day to day experience of a south-east London schoolboy. They made an indelible mark on me: an itch that has demanded scratching for many years, but which, for shame, I have often neglected. That it was a beginning in total contrast to the amount of time I have spent in mountains and high places during my adult life, is a paradox I still grapple with.

Dungeness nowadays

When lockdown eased and the restriction on local travel lifted, the need for the comfort of familiar but quiet places and to go for long, occasionally contemplative walks began to call. The simple logistics of getting from home to somewhere on the edge of the Marsh, armed with a map, a packed lunch and a flask of tea, took away the need to think too much about where we should go.

Our determination to follow the course of the Royal Military Canal in stages for several of our walks eventually took us to Rye and Winchelsea.

Rye Harbour. Less prosaic than the name suggests

Both had been at the outer limit of where I could cycle to, and back, when I was a kid. The body was willing, the bike was the weak link. Winchelsea, which hardly seemed to have altered, had first drawn me for a revisit very soon after lockdown ended. I’d never been to pay my respects at Spike Milligan’s last resting place, in the big churchyard. As coincidence happens, Milligan had been one of my main comic heroes when I was a young teenager.

Milligan’s Grave

I don’t think I was ever aware quite how scenic the route of the Royal Military Canal is. As a kid, I couldn’t ride my bike on the rough grass paths that flank it. I loved every metre of discovering it recently on foot, and want to get back during the winter, when there will be fewer leaves on the trees on the canal banks, allowing more characterful reflections and still bigger vistas.

Big skies above the Canal

The Canal was also a good way to visit several of the “wool churches” of the Romney Marsh. These mediaeval churches were originally endowed by local gentry who had grown rich on the wool from the ever-present sheep on the Marsh. Ostensibly they served local communities, yet the relatively remote location of many of them suggests that their “local” congregations were never large. However, the churches themselves are reasonably large, considering. Presumably this once reflected the importance of the parish, or the wealth of the patron. The founding of most of these churches seems to have been before 1100AD. They most probably began as wooden buildings, later rebuilt in imported stone.

As a kid, I found those churches that had an open door very scary to enter alone, and I was too timid ever to ask for the key to those kept locked. It would probably have been refused to me, a mere kid, anyway. Scarier still were the graveyards, if they had one. Strange, because I have a fascination these days with old burial places (witness my blog a few years back, here.) I’ve included a recent photo of the most remote of these churches, at Fairfield, well on the way towards Rye, which is famous enough currently to grace the cover of the local 1:25,000 scale OS map.

The church of St Thomas a Becket at Fairfield

Sad to say, I don’t have any photos from “back then” – we’re talking about roughly 1964 to 1970 as I recall. I didn’t own my first camera until, I think, 1971, although I’d been allowed to take my mother’s Kodak Box Brownie (620 roll film) on school outings from time to time. My bike didn’t have a carrier or a saddlebag, so it would have been almost impossible to carry it, and I suspect the shaking it would have received would not have gone down well.

One thing I particularly regret is not having any photos showing the old sea wall on the stretch of coast beside which we stayed. This ran from Greatstone down towards Hythe. It was made up of a massive set of concrete steps, maybe half to three-quarters sea-covered at the average full tide. The whole length of it had a real “art deco” style, inwardly-curving top section, designed to diffuse the stronger waves in heavy seas. I’m referring to it in the past tense, but actually, it’s still there. The difference is that nowadays, most of it has been buried beneath what must amount to many millions of tons of shingle that have been moved there from further up the coast, as part of work to improve coastal defences. I’ve been completely unable to find any record of this work online, but it must have been a massive undertaking, stretching along several miles of coast. The old sea wall I remember so well still exists if you walk down to Dymchurch and along towards Hythe.  

Looking from Littlestone towards Dymchurch, recently

The photos with this chapter of the blog are all from this summer’s explorations.

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On the Loose

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How was “lockdown” for you, then? And how have you been handling the strange new world of post-lockdown freedoms? Are you still fearful, like me, that the next person you meet could be the one who ends up killing you?

Since we’ve been permitted to get out again (and, to be honest, for one or two occasions before that), I’ve been ‘rediscovering” the Loose Valley.

Where? Well, if you’re from outside of mid-Kent, you’ve probably never heard of it. After all, its stream is only a minor tributary to the river Medway. The valley is a few miles of countryside, barely a mile as the crow flies from the centre of Maidstone, and it has a deeply rural feel to it. It was not always quite so, however. The Loose stream (the name itself is said to be a corruption of an early word for “clear”) was perfect for the needs of paper-making, and fullers earth, which was essential in the preparation of rags for paper production, was abundant locally. From maybe as early as the 15th century, the Valley was home to a hand-made paper-making industry of great importance, which only came to a final end in the mid-1980’s.

Ten years prior to that closure, I came to know the Valley (as I am want to call it) very well indeed, but have hardly ever been back since then. Why so? Well, we all have compartments in that box we call “The Past” which are marked “Warning! Too many bad memories. Do not revisit”, don’t we? The Loose Valley was an innocent bystander to a very unhappy and troubled time for me back then. I feared returning would remind me of too many bad things that are best kept firmly locked in that box.

My direct connection with the Loose Valley was that I had a thesis to write on how the nascent paper industry got there, what it achieved, and why, at that time, it had almost all come to an end. Unlike large scale industries like quarrying, or mining elsewhere in the UK, paper didn’t scar the Loose Valley. Its stream of pellucid fresh water and cascading gradients allowed a series of mills, small when compared to the later giant mills further on down the River Medway, to develop deep in its heart, over several hundred years. Some started as corn mills. Some ended up as corn mills, but the Loose Valley was a big contributor to helping meet the huge demand for paper, as the world moved from handwritten scripts on vellum, to near-insatiable demand for the raw material that fed the emergence of mechanised printing.

By the end of the 19th Century, the heyday of several of the mills had passed, and a couple more died a lingering death in the early 20th Century. When I first came to know the Valley, buildings or their remains, with their origins and locations dating back quite a few centuries still stood, in varying states of decay or outright ruin, astride the Loose stream and the big mill ponds. With care, if not always with permission, it was possible to explore some of them. In a few cases, there was even enough left to allow one to piece together how the processes on that site may have worked. There were still several water-wheels, in varying states of decay. These had been a driving force for the mills, relatively few of which had ever turned to steam power. Most paper was made by hand until later in the 19th century, and a few mills retained the skills after that, for premium papers. Royalty were numbered amongst their customers. My explorations were the stuff of heady days (and occasional big risks!) over more than two years.

And so, we fast-forward about 45 years, to a very different world. It pleased me when walking there, that the tracks and footpaths through the Valley still followed familiar courses, though I was completely unprepared for just how much quite mature woodland there was where once I remembered mostly scrub. As a result, the Valley seemed far more “hemmed in”. Much of my time spent there before had been in autumn and winter, however, and maybe that has something to do with it. At least the considerable acreage of sheep pasture in its heart seemed unchanged. Such an incongruous sight, so close to a fairly large town, even in Kent.

The place-names were very familiar: Hayle Mill, Ivy Mill, Crisbrook Mill, etc. In many places, the near-random clusters of terraced cottages originally built for mill-workers and allied craftsmen continue to provide small homes. What has changed almost beyond my expectation were the larger buildings – the former mill buildings themselves and their paper-drying stores. Several nowadays would still quite probably stand comparison visually with what was there in, say, the 1880s, were it possible for the modern visitor to gain access to see them, of course.

Several of the millponds have become central to lush gardens to the large houses that have morphed from ruined mill buildings. One still sports its mill wheel. It continues to turn, pretty much as its makers intended.

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But so much of what is new takes the form of impenetrable gates, hedges and fences. One former mill was very recently advertised as being for sale. The agent’s details online showed how much of the interior look and feel had been retained in the modernised, near-million pound house. That’s a lot of money for a house that still gets its water supply from the local springs, though.

I was particularly sad to find how securely the wonderful Ivy Mill and its big pond had been fenced off, not just to keep passers-by from trespassing, but to stop them from even seeing what is there nowadays. The biggest positive impression on me was Hayle Mill, once the largest in the Valley, which has become what I guess you’d call a “housing complex”, albeit one sympathetically created on almost the same footprint of the former mill and its big drying sheds. To the developer’s credit, almost the whole place has been built in authentic-looking white clapperboard, with most of the lines of the original roofscape above.

Hayle was, I think, the last mill to survive in the Valley, finally throwing in the metaphorical towel around 1987. My memories of it are of pretty much from the start of its final decade, when decay and decrepitude had begun to set in. Still being in use back then, it wasn’t a site I ever got to study from within. Above is a photo I found online of conversion work at the mill in 2006, beside which is my recent photo from the same spot.

Needless to say, for the passing photographer nowadays (eg me), getting truly representative photographs that might be compared to contemporary images from the heyday of the mills, is nigh on impossible. Even if I had harboured a dream of producing a set of photos like the black and whites I’d taken around 1974, I can’t, because those shots of mine have long vanished. I loaned them to someone who called himself a “local historian”, along with my final dissertation, many years back, and have not seen them, or him, since.

Photos of the mills from the late 19th century (ie after the invention of photography and while they were at their most numerous) are themselves scarce, in any event. The web has been helpful, however. A local named Phil Turner’s 2013 piece here includes several evocative photos. He references the once well-known local artist Donald Maxwell, who is buried in a churchyard not far from where I live. However, I have had little luck tracing Maxwell’s work in the Loose Valley, and I hadn’t heard of him back when doing my studies – no internet back then, of course.

Alfred Quinton was a fairly prolific watercolourist in the late 19th/early 20th centuries (see this) and I have copies of two postcards of paintings he made in the Loose Valley.

Here is his take on what I think is the Ivy Mill pond:

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The other is of what was the workers’ pub, “The Bockingford Arms”. It is still immediately recognisable today, though long converted to a large house. Here’s how they compare:

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My walks in the Valley have helped me exorcise some ghosts, and they become easier to do each time. Writing this has also been a key piece of the healing process. Thanks for your patience with an eccentric choice of subject for the blog this time.

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(Lock)Down by the River

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Funny how these things go, isn’t it? It’s more than 14 months since I added to this blog. We’re embroiled in the biggest peace-time emergency that I and almost any of you reading this will ever experienced. Consequently, most of us are living under “lockdown”. And here I am, adding a new chapter to my writing about the landscapes in my life!

Not how I planned it, of course. 2019 was a difficult year for me. I’d have liked to share with you some photos from my trip to Venice last March. However, while I was there, I picked up quite a severe gut bug, which affected me for several months after I returned, and by then, the Venice visit was something I really just wanted to forget.

Then, I began to develop chronic problems with my knees, which ended up greatly restricting my ability to get out and about with a bagful of cameras. They were not a whole lot better by September, when we set off for two weeks in the Dolomites. It was a trip I was really looking forward to, but I hadn’t counted on EasyJet. I had hand luggage full of camera gear, and a big bag of hold luggage containing everything else. We flew to Venice airport, where we had a hire car booked for the fortnight. Trouble is, EasyJet never actually loaded any hold luggage for our flight. I had, quite literally, what I stood up in on arrival, and it had been a warm morning when we left home. To cut a long and intensely frustrating story short, it was five days before the luggage caught up with us at our hotel in Cortina d’Ampezzo. The arrival of our boots, jackets, warm tops, etc coincided with the start of an extended wet spell of weather and a flare up of my knee troubles. Another trip best forgotten. And don’t get me started on the wettest UK winter in recent memory….

So why am I kickstarting this blog in the depths of the coronavirus pandemic? The pandemic hit northern Italy very hard. It was one of the first areas to suffer really badly. We’d got flights and a hotel in Venice booked for the end of March. Both were early victims of the pandemic close-downs. But I digress….

The coronavirus lockdown permits me to get out for daily, local exercise. Gyms and most other places are shut, of course. After a few weeks exploring walks to places within reach of home that I’d not visited for a while, I found myself walking beside the River Medway most afternoons. This coincided with a spell of rather good weather that suddenly gave way to rain. This reduced the numbers using the path considerably. It also gave me some quite dramatic photos of familiar places.

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On tv, there are currently a lot of programmes making “virtual” trips to museums etc, for the entertainment of those currently unable to visit them, because those museums are under lockdown themselves, of course. I’ve been contributing to several things like this myself, because there didn’t seem to me any point in my photos gathering dust in cyberspace. The great team that looks after the Medway River Park had been posting some nice shots of the Medway Path, and they responded very positively when I asked if they were interested in me also tweeting, over a series of weeks, the set of photos that formed the basis of my 2016 exhibition “Watching the River Flow” (about which, see here if you missed it at the time).

This was a great bit of fun, and a stroll down a memory lane mostly full of good memories.

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I gained several new followers on Twitter, and heard from numerous appreciative fans of the Medway Path. When all 35 or so photos used in the exhibition had been shared, it occurred to me that I could carry on for quite a bit longer, using the best of the images that made it to the exhibition shortlist but, owing to lack of space, not to the exhibition walls. At time of writing this, that’s what I’m up to. If you’re on Twitter, look up the hashtag #WatchingtheRiverFlow to see everything that has been posted there. I’ve also (within the limitations of Twitter’s allowed 280 character per tweet) told a bit of the story behind the individual shots and the exhibition itself.

This also allowed me to show off the photo I’ve used at the head of this blog. I think of it as possibly the best monochrome landscape image I have produced. It’s taken from one of two spots I seem to return to time and again with camera in hand. It seldom disappoints.

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He Ain’t Heavy…..

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I suspect this rather overdue episode of this blog will turn into a camera nerd thing, only of real interest to fellow camera nerds of the same vintage. If that’s not you, I hope to see you again sometime, out the other side of it. But you might want to hang around and see where this leads, nevertheless.

Just before Christmas 2018, I had a week in Florence, basically armed only with my iPhone 7Plus. It wasn’t supposed to be that way. My luggage included my trusty Lumix GF1 camera, with its long and short lenses too, plus several memory cards and a spare battery. Somehow, though, a) I forgot the battery charger, b) the battery in the camera was more than half-used, and c) the spare was flat. Not really like me, because I live in virtual dread of running out of power. Florence has an excellent “real” camera shop, of the kind I was sure could bail me out with a replacement battery, a recharge, or something. But no, I was just met with sympathetic shakes of the head on both counts. So, after a couple of days exhausting such life as I had in the Lumix battery, the iPhone it was, then.

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Of course, if you’re a regular reader here, you’ll know I had no real reservations about the ‘phone’s ability to cope. I wasn’t disappointed, either. Our trip was principally to have a week immersing ourselves in Italian Renaissance culture. Much of most days was spent in museums and galleries, dodging the crowds where we could, and occasionally doing a bit of street photography – something Florence can be great for. It was a modest week – all told, about 1,000 photos. Nicest thing of all was to be shooting for myself, not to a brief, or a deadline, etc.

We travelled home right at the end of that “drone” thing at London Gatwick, which you may remember caused utter chaos and uncertainty, even though, by some miracle, we arrived home only 30 minutes later than originally scheduled. It was then that things like Christmas and New Year, having a new mains water supply pipe fitted to the house, and a major bout of interior decorating, took over. The latter hadn’t really been planned at all. We’d had some new double-glazed windows fitted in early December, and a few bits and pieces needed tidying up. I’d also declined some work from a client I’d been meaning to part with for some time (my patience with bad payers only lasts for so long), and I found I had time available for one of those month-long decorating binges that you know right from the start is going to extend into major reorganisations of books, CDs, camera gear, and so on. And it did.

Now, one thing that definitely needed sorting, as an adjunct to all the other tarting up of the house, was my stock of film. Several years back, I’d bought a fridge-full of mostly short-dated 120 and 35mm film from a very traditional photographer friend I’d known for a very long time. Ill-health had forced him to give up his business, and I was offered the film for a pittance. I’d bought it at a time when I also had great ambitions to get some serious use out of of my two Bronica medium format camera outfits. I wrote a couple of blogs about these beauties here and here the last time I’d begun to feel guilty about the many boxes of film still in the fridge, all getting older day by day. Life, and a bit of ill-health and sports injury had interfered with my plans for a few more regular trips to the Alps and Dolomites, which would have made big in-roads to that film stock. Key to that would have been the fitness to allow me to cart a medium format film camera outfit around on my back in the mountains. Suffice it to say that it just didn’t happen. I started this blog with a 2012 shot that amply shows the rewards from such exertions. Here’s another:

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The Florence trip maybe presented an opportunity to shoot some film. I’d done so on a visit there in 2011. However, the cost of hold-luggage on what were once regarded as “budget” flights has skyrocketed since then, and this time we just about got by on cabin bags. The Lumix digital outfit packs down small enough to travel that way. On this occasion, however, for the pathetic reasons already mentioned, it turned out to be mostly just useless dead weight. So, during the reorganising of the house, and almost as an act of revenge against my own poor preparation and packing, I’d vowed to take the earliest opportunity I could to get out a bit more with a Bronica. Again.

Then, in January, an opportunity to pay a visit to Venice came up. This was unexpected, but would help me solve a few other problems, so it went in the diary immediately. I also realised it was also 2011 when I’d last spent any time photographing Venice on film. That was when armed with my “baby Bronica”, the ETRSi, a wide angle lens, and its very useful panoramic format 35mm film back. I got shots like this:

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What I really wanted was to see Venice through the eye of my best camera: the big Bronica GS, with its 6cm x 7cm negatives. That trip is still a few weeks away, as I write this. There will be a blog, be assured.

The final part of the decorating/reorganisation of the house involved clearing cupboards etc of quite a bit of what my late mother would have called “old toot”. Mostly “old photographic toot”, in fact. Dead flashguns, broken lenses, bits and pieces I had acquired or held on to because I thought they “might come in useful one day”, and which never had. When sorted, it made a sorry little pile, all of which went in the bin without any further expenditure of emotion. It was nice, though, to find a few pieces that I’d given up as lost. These included two now very hard-to-get Bronica GS viewfinder screens, still in their original boxes. One was designed to work with a spot-meter viewing prism – something I now own, but certainly didn’t have when I bought the screen! Ah, faith!

Once everything being retained was neatly tidied back away, I sat down one evening to give the big Bronica a good look over. The baby Bronica had been professionally serviced a couple of years back, because it had been in the wars, but it was probably at least that long since I’d even changed one of the big, beautiful GS lenses. So, in a matter of minutes, I had dismantled it into its component parts. These things are completely modular. The camera body is little more than a plain cube containing the electrics, mirror and shutter button. To it, one clips on a choice of film back, viewfinder/metering prism, and lens. There’s also a useful optional carrying handle/flashgun bracket. Every piece is made to last. When all fitted together, the GS weighs in at almost 3 kilograms on my kitchen scales, proving how much of a lie the title to this blog is. By comparison, my Lumix GF, with its standard 14-42 lens weights just 0.7 of a kilo The Bronica is effectively a big, modular single lens reflex camera, but the experience of using these things is very different indeed to my workaday Nikon DSLR cameras, for example. Not better, not worse, just different.

I was quite chuffed that I also still had all the plastic protective covers for lenses and all the holes in the body, designed to protect the innards when the parts are in storage or transit. My inspection of the camera showed that little was actually needed to any of it, by way of remedial work, other than to remove a few bits of fluff with tweezers, and blow some dust off the mirror, etc. And it was while playing around with the parts that a thought came to me.

The big Bronica is one hell of a lump when assembled, and I’d never have considered putting it, fully assembled, into my cabin bag suitcase when flying. However, went the thought, each of its parts pack down neatly. Like this:

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The rubber lens hoods come off the lenses and fold down. The film back has its own leather carrying pouch, for example. I have a useful padded compartment that fits inside that cabin suitcase, which takes my Lumix GF1 outfit perfectly, along with a second lens, the battery charger, spare battery, plug lead, download lead, etc. I took the Lumix and its family out of the bag, and it dawned on my how much of what was in there comprised the “back-of-house overheads” that go with working with a properly equipped digital outfit. None of which (second lens excepted) has an equivalent in a thirty year old analogue kit. Well, ok, there’s rolls of film that make up some of the difference, I guess.

I slipped the camera body, prism, film back and one lens into the compartment and to my surprise, with a bit of experimentation, there was room to spare. Several rolls of film’s-worth. You can see where I’m going with this, of course. Venice for starters.

(To be continued when I get back!)

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The Colours of the Rainbow

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It really pains me to find that I’ve not posted anything here since April. That’s six months ago! It certainly isn’t for want of opportunity. I can only really claim “other demands on my time” as some kind of excuse.

So, where are we?

Well, the reception for my Venice work (see numerous previous blogs here) has been really good. I’ve felt very flattered to have so many great comments from Venetians themselves who have seen some of the shots. Given how many images of their city they have no doubt been bombarded with over time, I am rather pleased a few of mine have made a mark. Sadly, I’ve not got another Venice visit scheduled until probably September 2019, when the European Masters Athletics Championships will be happening nearby, at Lido di Jesolo.

Aside from the routine of work here in the UK this summer – my photography has been mostly gardens and running – I got to Malaga in Spain in September. This wasn’t quite the visit I’d intended. The story is told in two blogs on my other site, here and here. The good news is that my leg is recovering well. My feet seem to be taking a bit longer. Malaga was great for culture – some great galleries, including a branch of the Pompidou Centre, but I got no time off to enjoy much away from the city centre itself, unfortunately.

I am excited at the prospect of a return visit to Florence in December (the header photo to this piece is a teaser). I had something of a love affair with the city a few years ago, and I was surprised to find that this was in the days before I’d even begun this occasional blog, which this time reaches its 54th chapter. I will make amends for that omission from here in the months to come, I promise.

I slipped a bit into the photographic doldrums after Malaga. Dealing with the (thankfully many) orders for copies of my World Masters Championships photos from there occupied many mornings, but adding in the need to catch up on other commitments rather robbed me of time behind the lens. My photographic mojo seemed to have left me a bit too, if I’m honest.

I’d been following a series of miniature “photo essays” on Twitter under the twin hashtags #LifeInColour” and #ROYGBIV for a few weeks. One needed a nomination to take part, and I was very pleased to get one, and have an opportunity to post a picture a day for seven days, covering a “spectrum” of typical stuff I shoot. The rules require each photo to major on a particular colour of the rainbow. I could have raided my archives and produced a set of photos going way back, but that would have taken time I didn’t really have. Therefore, by choice, my seven shots came from the past 12 months. Most came from the past six months, in fact.

What was unexpected was that this exercise taught me some interesting things about what I shoot. The work I do for myself remains varied, though maybe not quite so much as it once was. I definitely have colours that seem to attract me more than others. Green? No problem, I thought. But indigo? Who has a range of indigo shots to choose from? (An irritating aside was that a good few other contributors to LifeInColour didn’t seem to be able to tell indigo from violet, or vice-versa.) And shots with a predominance of red are quite rare in my recent collection. Maybe those things are not a complete surprise for someone whose roots remain in landscape photography.

Well, after that rambling intro, I thought you might like to see my chosen “rainbow”.

Red

The team from India at the World Masters Athletics Championships in Malaga mainly wore bright red. Here is a shot of one of their stars, Hardev Singh, who is over 85 years old, taking part in one of the relay races. I realised that I could equally have used this photo in the “orange” slot.

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Orange

I love the tricks my garden sometimes plays on me. We had some beautiful crocosmia growing on a rocky patch for quite a few years. Then, about three years back, it simply disappeared. Until this summer when it came back, exactly where it had always grown! I cheated a little with this shot, and used a piece of black card to make a backdrop to the flowers, which were still growing at the time I took the shot.

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Yellow

Another colour I seem not to shoot very much as a dominant theme. My garden has given some really beautiful yellow roses this year, but when I remembered this photo, of one of the British Masters athletes hurdling in Malaga, I couldn’t resist using it. I’m proud of the composition and the colours.

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Green

Never going to be a problem for a landscape photographer, I thought. However, nothing I had to hand really screamed “Green!” at me like this close up of some fuchsia leaves in early light, after a night of rain. The symmetry is pleasing, and the photo is as shot.

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Blue

Blue troubled me too. No problem getting a load of stuff with blue skies, or even blue waters. I’d also, as you’ll have seen from the “Red” photo, recently worked in a stadium in Malaga with a bright blue track surface. However, as much for its memories of the place as anything, I chose this photo of a bicycle I saw in Padova when I was there ten months back. It may be understated, but it’s a lovely blue, nearly matched by the shop poster.

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Indigo

For those struggling to place it, indigo is a deep blue colour. Think night skies in classic paintings, etc. I’d bet there won’t be too many photographers with a large collection of indigo shots. My favourite is this one, with the indigo covers on the Venice gondolas.

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Violet

Violet is the colour of violets. That’s not actually very helpful though. I have white violets in my garden, and even the other-coloured ones are not a classic shade of true violet. However, I couldn’t resist this shot – an overload of violet. It was taken on the Venetian island of Burano, when the wisteria was in bloom. This japanese couple had come all the way from Tokyo to get married in Venice.

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Why not have a go at your own “rainbow”? If it causes you as much critical reflection on your photos as it did me with mine, I’ll probably have done you a favour.

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Pain or Paradise?

 

IMG_5841I’ve been back from my most recent trip to the charming crumbliness that is Venice for about a week now, and it’s time I put some thoughts in this blog. I have never really been one to write traditional “travelogues”. I don’t think I can muster my thoughts quickly enough to write “here’s what I’ve just done today” stuff. So, this is a blog with the benefit of a week spent letting my thoughts and impressions “marinade”, as it were. Quite a bit of that time was spent editing my photos from the trip, so my visual impressions were constantly being refreshed – and occasionally what I saw when I downloaded the images I’d taken at the time challenged my memories. Memory plays tricks, as they say, and I think that’s certainly so with colour.

It had been hardly four months since my last Venice visit. Weather conditions in late November were mostly kind, but we lacked for sunshine then, most of the time. Not so this trip. A few wispy white clouds were burning off as we waited for the boat shuttle from the airport to the City – the only way to arrive, by the way – forget the bus! The sky was pure blue an hour later when we fussed around doing all those useful jobs, like buying a week-long vaporetto pass, and studying the various offers available on admission prices to the better exhibitions etc. It was a deliciously warm late afternoon when we arrived at our hotel, buried in a quiet part of Dorsoduro. And I tell you no lie, but between arriving and leaving eight days later, we hardly saw a single cloud in the sky. Sunshine all the way.

For most of the way, when we travelled to our hotel. we were not struck by Venice really looking or feeling any busier than usual. It was basically the same journey we’d made in November. I’d estimate that more than half of visitor faces the nearer we got to the Rialto-St Marks axis were oriental – but then that too was about the same as November. However, we heard a fair bit of English being spoken. Hardly surprising, as the Easter school and college holidays at home were not quite over.

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We’d got off the airport boat in Canareggio and walked to the railway station tourist office. What was striking was how empty Canareggio was, and how abrupt the change to more crowded streets came, once we were a few minutes’ walk from the Santa Lucia station. Tickets bought for the week, we hopped on a not very crowded vaporetto down the Grand Canal. This surprised us, as the big Piazzale Roma bus terminal and car park is basically the stop before we got on. But it’s just after lunchtime, we thought; people will have arrived earlier and be leaving a bit later on today.  Down the Canal, very few people got on and off the vaporetto. Mostly locals going about their daily routines. That changed the moment we pulled in to the Rialto waterbus stop. It was rammed solid with tourists. The Canal in every direction was providing good trade for the gondoliers at the regulation €80 for 30 minutes (a price, it seems, that somehow has not increased for nearly 5 years). The cafes and bars on the San Polo side were clearly in big demand. Only four more stops until we had to get off at Accademia. It’s a good job we started fighting our way forward from our seats at the back of the vaporetto when we did: we were lucky to be able to get off the thing when it reached our stop. Hard to fight the crowds when you’re carrying a suitcase. 

It took no more than a few seconds to find the street we needed to head for our hotel. This is the university part of town, and was reasonably busy with youngsters we assumed (probably correctly) to be students. Our hotel was in a back street, not on the way to or from anything else, and soon it seemed as if we had Venice to ourselves. Had the vaporetto experience just been a bad joke? We were also the hotel’s only guests for the first two days of our stay. 

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We spent our first full day in the Castello sestriere of Venice (basically the bit behind and north from St Mark’s Basilica). We walked through the Square to get there. St Mark’s was a sprawling mess of people and queues, even at 10am. The neighbouring streets of tat and trinket shops were full of window-shoppers, but once we crossed the first couple of bridges and left these behind, we were in much quieter territory. True, we’d glanced down towards the Bridge of Sighs as we’d crossed the Rio di Palazza and seen something like an illustration from Dante’s Inferno, but heading as we were, away from there in a north westerly direction, all was calm and very welcoming.

We made an early start next morning to visit the Rialto markets. I wanted some photos of the fruit and vegetable market in particular. We arrived at what seemed to be the dip between trade with the local hotels and shops etc, and the point at which the market is flooded with tourists. The many trinket stall that surround the market area were not even open. All well and good, and I got my photos (I’m from a family that ran a greengrocers, you see). We headed into the San Polo sestriere, aiming on a day spent fairly aimlessly rambling its maze of backstreets and little canals. It was there, a couple of minutes away from the market area, that we met them.

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Them? Yes, nameless hordes of tourists, many led by someone waving a flag or umbrella. You could tell those who’d recently come in by coach to Piazzale Roma, because they tended to walk four abreast, with a gap between each pair – just as they’d probably sat on the bus. And these crowds confronted us like a wave of water flooding towards us down any of the streets we tried. No one seemed to be stopping and taking in the area through which they were passing. Their focus was pretty much straight ahead, where the guide/party leader was, Pied Piper-like, hustling them onwards.

On several of the following days, we experienced something similar, whenever we were heading out through part of the city not long after 10am. There was a very clear pattern too. I’d say 80% of the hordes we encountered were heading towards Rialto or St Mark’s Square. On the day we visited Burano, there were big numbers heading to and from the glass ornament capital island of Murano too, although we had no difficulty getting seats anywhere we wanted on our waterbus heading further out to the edges of the Venetian lagoon. No one at all got on or off when it stopped at historic Torcello. We were so surprised that we almost took the opportunity ourselves, to make up for a four year absence, though the insane colours of the next stop, at Burano were too much of a pull to resist.

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Just in the last few days, I’ve read quite a bit in the media about how the Venetian authorities have erected “temporary” turnstiles in the Rialto/St Mark’s area, allegedly for the purposes of separating tourists from locals, and forcing the former on to designated “tourist routes”. Why “allegedly”? Well, I am enough of a cynic to believe that this might well be a dry run for what will eventually lead to a system of access charges for visitors to the most popular parts of Venice. These have been widely spoken about. It’s not my role, nor this the place, to debate the pros and cons of that. My only reaction to those who claim visitors are loving Venice to death is to say that their attention seems very starkly focused on a few areas in particular. Local people are worried about the “Disneyfication” of their city. It strikes me, every time I walk down streets like the Calle Largo San Marco, or San Polo’s Ruga Vecchia, that that battle was essentially lost quite a while ago when the tourist souvenir shops and fast food outlets (no mater how much of an Italian veneer they profess) became the majority. Venice, for many of its visitors, be they from trains, planes, cars, buses or the obscenely huge cruise ships, has become some kind of “experience” to be undergone; a necessary tick on life’s bucket list. 

I find myself wondering how many of those making up the sheep-like armies we dodged ever return to Venice for a second visit? I imagine that perhaps even they would say “No, it was just too full of tourists”.

There, blog done. And I didn’t even get started on another rant about “selfie” culture. That took a lot of self control, believe me!

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New Beginnings

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A Tuscan winter’s morning

The “star” of the last episode of this blog was my big Zenza Bronica GS-1 medium format camera. However, that brute has a slightly smaller brother, and by coincidence, he’s about to undergo some road-tests after rather a long period of “hospitalization”.

When I reached the age of 40, back in 1994, it was in the heady days when 35mm photography was probably at its height, though “real” photographers still liked to say “big is better”, and medium and large format photography was still getting many pages of coverage in the camera press. These were, of course, pre internet and pre digital camera days. A last hurrah, or the calm before the storm? History will decide.

I was a regularly-published photographer of things to do with Britain’s mountains, and my “specialist” area, the Italian Dolomites. I worked almost exclusively with a really lovely Nikon F3/T camera.

My Nikon was a marvel. This wasn’t your ordinary black-bodied F3/T, but one of what was known as the “champagne T” limited editions. See photo.

Nikon-F3T-in-ChampagneThe T cameras had numerous titanium body parts. The “champagne” cameras were produced in a pinkish-grey finish, very resistant indeed to scratches and knocks. Moreover, mine had been “winterised” at some point in its life. I think this involved some special lubrication being put in, and a bit of insulation of the electrics. It was also able to take an external battery pack that could be worn inside a jacket. I never did get to find out its full history, but the guy in the shop told me he thought the previous owner had done a stint with the Antarctic Survey.

So, I had the ideal mountain camera. However, I was well aware that 35mm format was limiting so far as the purer forms of landscape photography went. Large format cameras were beyond my price range, and impractical for my needs. Medium format was dominated by various forms of Rollei and Mamiya cameras, and Hassleblads for those with the money. There was a strong following for Bronica cameras too. A used camera dealership about 20 miles from where I lived had a service whereby they would search out and put together mint or near-mint condition camera outfits, to order. I gave them a specification for what I thought I wanted, and a week before my 40th birthday, my collection of “big boy’s toys” was ready to collect.

I’d bought a basic kit. Think big, modular single lens reflex camera. Camera body, film back, basic lens, prism meter/viewfinder and general-purpose standard lens. I loved it, and it wasn’t long before I began searching the shops and magazine ads (no such thing as eBay back then) to add useful accessories to my outfit. I was also loving the results from a film format (6cm x 4.5cm negatives and slides) that is quite a bit larger than 35mm. OK, there are only 15 shots per roll of 120 film, but while I could get through a couple of 36 exposure rolls of 35mm film on a day out in the mountains, the smaller number was fine for the situations I used the Bronica in. It was too big and clumsy, in my opinion, to take up high in the hills, and totally, totally impractical for rock-climbing photography.

Reading “Amateur Photographer” magazine one day, several months after buying my Bronica outfit, I came across a short piece about the delights of the “135” film backs made for my Bronica model. These take a cassette of 35mm film. There’s one that takes the standard 36mm x 24mm frames, and a “W” model that shoots 52mm x 24mm panoramic format frames, achieving 23 of such frames to a roll of 36 exposure 35mm film. I was immediately interested in the ‘W’. Here was a brilliant crossover option between my 35mm and medium format needs. There was one problem. The 135 series backs had only ever been made in small numbers, and the W backs in particular were allegedly, said the magazine article, as rare as hen’s teeth.

I rang the used equipment dealer from whom I’d bought my outfit, to check this out. “Yes”, he said, “they don’t turn up very often, but by coincidence, we’ve just got one in. If you want it, you’ll need to be quick, because it’ll be advertised in ‘Amateur Photographer’ next week, and be sold immediately.” I needed no other prompting. I bought it sight-unseen, and collected it that weekend. I don’t recall that the fact for, back then, it was quite expensive, ever came into the equation. I don’t scour the used equipment ads in print, (or on eBay) much these days, but ever since buying my 135W back over 20 years ago, I think I have only ever seen one or two advertised. I was that fortunate. The last one I saw was on eBay and it attracted hundreds of bids. I can’t begin to think what price it went for!

Anyhow, me and the Bronica ETRSi went on some superb outings. I was fortunate to have a series of Christmas/New Year trips to Tuscany, and it was the ideal camera for everything I wanted there. The big GS-1 Bronica would have been even better, but I hadn’t bought it then!

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Then came the fateful day. We’d stopped off in the lovely little walled town of Monteriggioni for coffee on our last afternoon. I parked the Bronica on the cafe’s high counter while paying for coffees, and, as I lifted them on their tray, I up-ended the camera, which headed straight for the cafe’s stone-tiled floor. My hands were full of a tray and coffees etc, and I had no chance to catch it. The crash brought silence to the whole cafe. Yes, it even sounded to others as near-fatal as it sounded to me.

The Bronica’s 75mm lens was totally smashed and the lens body horribly distorted. The floor came off far better, without even a mark! The impact had parted the lens from the camera body. The viewing prism was similarly cast adrift, though apparently undamaged. The 120 format film back I’d been using at the time had burst open, immediately ruining the ten or so shots taken on it. Maybe everything would have survived a fall on to a wooden floor, but four feet or so directly down on to Tuscan stonework was far too much. It was a disaster.

I didn’t get a real chance to study the damage until we were back in the UK. There was nothing to salvage of the lens, which had clearly taken the main impact. It went in the bin without much ceremony. The film back seemed none the worse for the fall, the force which had caused its latches to open. In normal operation it seemed fine. The metering and viewing prism was an expensive later addition I’d bought. It didn’t seem to be damaged or marked at all, but wouldn’t lock properly on to the camera body. This was traced to a hairline crack along a length of a plastic casing to the body, which was made of very firm plastic, around a strong metal chassis. The metal chassis seemed fine. A replacement lens fitted to the lens mount perfectly. The 75mm lens had, in effect, acted as a crumple zone! The impact had also dislodged the internal mirror mechanism.

The box of bits languished untouched for several years in my office, a constant reminder of bad luck and clumsiness. I was using digital SLRs for most work by now, but still had a freezer full of film that needed using. The Bronica had been reserved for special trips. Through a friend of a friend of a friend, I had the entirely unexpected chance to buy a very complete outfit built around the ETRSi’s big brother, the GS-1 for really not a great deal of money. I’m glad I did, because the GS1 has given me great service – see this blog, for example. However, the damage to the ETRSi still irked. However, an experiment had shown that the camera’s metering electrics still worked, and eventually I decided to drop it in to a now much-missed local repair workshop for a look.

Professional attention fixed the mirror without difficulty, but the advice was that the crack in the camera body wasn’t capable of being mended. It was a stressed section that helped hold the viewfinder prism firmly in place. Options were to find a way to tape it up, or stump up the cost of a new camera body. Once the mirror was working again, I was able to confirm everything in the camera worked, but the viewing prism would not stay fixed on. Everything went back in that box in the office. While I could have sold the individual components, with its crack, the body wasn’t saleable. Heart ruled head.

It wasn’t until late 2017, around ten years since the accident, that I finally got around to having a serious look at how to repair that split. To my surprise, by discreetly taping the viewfinder to the camera body, I had something that stayed firmly in place and allowed full functionality. With the use of just a couple of inches of good quality, carefully-positioned mending tape, I had a complete ETRSi outfit again. I was glad the camera hadn’t had its rather expensive 50mm wide angle lens fitted when it was dropped. I can’t justify replacing the 75mm “workhorse” lens, so the 50 looks like it might become the new standard. It gives a view approximately equivalent to 28mm on a 35mm format camera or digital slr.

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Not to be dropped!

Well, today I finished the job of cleaning and fettling all parts of the ETRSi kit. It looks wonderful. The wide angle lens will bring out the best from the 135W film back, and I still have more than a dozen rolls of 35mm film in the fridge. Stand by for some experimentation!

My title this time is a Strawbs song, which will be unknown to almost everyone likely to read this piece!

 

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“And He Marched Them Down Again…”

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The Tre Cime di Lavaredo

This instalment of the blog isn’t about Venice, nor about mobile phone photography, some may be relieved to hear! No, it’s a little bit of a trip down memory lane that needs to be read in conjunction with this episode that I wrote back in September 2013 . I’ll pause for a bit while you have a quick read.

Right. With me? We’re in the Dolomites, visiting the area around the Tre Cime di Lavaredo. It’s strange, but perhaps revealing in the light of events I’ll relate here, that I didn’t mention at all in that blog you’ve just read what camera gear I was carrying that particular day. Why strange? Because there have not been many days when I have toted a full medium format film camera outfit up into the the high parts of the Dolomites. For the thick end of 10 years, mine has been a Bronica GS-1 6cm x 7cm set-up, with a full complement of lenses, and spare film backs. For sheer pack-weight alone the stuff ought to have got a mention back then.

IMG_2767The camera body, when mounted with the loveliest wide angle lens in the world, the Bronica 50mm job made for the GS, plus a viewfinder prism and a film back, sits on the scales at almost 3 kilograms The whole thing is big, heavy and made to last. The 50mm lens takes a 95mm filter. I often comment that, in extremis, you could eat a meal off one of those. So, take it from me: whether it’s in transit in a rucksack on your back, or ready for action on a strap over your shoulder, you certainly know you have it with you.

6 x 7 frames on 120 roll film means just 10 frames to a spool of film before the cumbersome job of changing film begins. It’s all proper “old-school” photography.

Now, fast forward to a couple of weeks into 2018. For one reason or another, the Bronica hadn’t seen too many outings for a couple of years. I’d not made it to Venice for a couple of years, where I simply love to use it. My running commitments, and injury related to these (!) had kept me off the mountains too often, and such other trips away I’d fitted in had tended to be lightweight affairs, constrained by what could realistically be carried by one or two people on a motorbike.

I had promised my other half that I’d seriously get down to some medium format photography this year. Why was it an issue of concern to her? Well, my stock of medium format roll film all lives in our fridge or the freezer at home and, let’s admit it, some of it had been in there quite a while. So, there came a day when I decided to give the whole Bronica outfit a good inspection and clean. I was impressed how it all still looked – for a film camera from the mid 1980s. I bought mine as a pretty large kit that I’ve added to over time, back in about 2001. I bought it from an old gent in North London, who had used it pretty much exclusively for taking shots of sample perfume bottles for the business he ran. It hadn’t, as a result, had anything like the hard life that might otherwise have been its fate. It was all in its original boxes and had possibly never even been used out of doors!

Suitably cleaned, I went to put everything back in the big camera rucksack it lives in/ At at the last moment, I decided that “if a job’s worth doing…etc”, the bag needed a clean as well. Its interior is made up of adjustable modular compartments etc, fitted to a surrounding frame. I took out all the compartments and, to my big surprise, found two film cassettes tucked away deep in the recesses of the base of the bag. I always cary my roll film in plastic cassettes made from two of the things 35mm film used to come in, stuck together with tape. It was two of these that were playing hide and seek.

Now, I had no idea at all a) how long they’d been there, b) whether they were used, c) what might have been on them if they were, and d) whether the passage of time was going to mean they’d come back spoiled from the developers. The second point was quickly resolved. Yes, they were used rolls of colour negative film. 120 film ends with a piece of adhesive tape that secures it tightly on the plastic film spool when finished. On both, the adhesive tape was neatly in place. What was missing was any identification on or in the cassettes as to when the stuff had been shot. I’m normally pretty good at adding something like that, but not for these.

Those great people at Peak Imaging, in Stockport, replied to my e-mail about my chances of getting images from these films with optimism. Provided the films had been stored dry, they should be ok if they were, say, about three to five years old. I’d guessed that this might have been their age, but I had no idea at all how old the films had been when I used them.

Why so? Well, in about 2008, an old professional photographer friend and mentor of mine had given up the game through ill-health, and I’d bought his remaining stocks of roll film from him. I’d actually bought the small freezer he kept it all in too, but we had no sensible room at home for that, and pretty soon the film all got transferred to our domestic freezer and kitchen fridge. We’re talking about perhaps 100 rolls of film all told. It had all been kept immaculately before I got it, so I wasn’t worried to see that some of it was at the point (back then) of date-expiring. Thus, if I’d used the film in, say, 2012, it might already have been 4 years out of date, and then spent the best part of five years hiding in a never-before-visited corner of my camera rucksack. How it had actually found its way there, goodness knows.

So, the films went off to Peak Imaging, and returned in the post a couple of days later. Joy of joys: the negatives looked crisp and full of detail. And I could tell immediately that the photos on both rolls were of the Dolomites. Now, you’ll maybe be ahead of me by now, and I’m getting a bit slow, but it wasn’t until I’d run a couple of frames through my film scanner and studied them on screen that it dawned on me – these were the rolls of film I must have shot on that irritating day in September 2013 that I directed you to read about when I started this piece.

Why I’d not missed them at the end of the day I shot them, I do not know. Why I seem to have no recollection of even having shot them at all is even more of a mystery. All I can suppose is that the events of that day had annoyed me so much that I’d pretty much blanked them by the time I next got the Bronica out to use. And how the films had become mislaid in the lining of the camera rucksack must forever remain a complete enigma.

It’s all been a bit like finding money down the back of the sofa. It’s also given me the reassurance that properly stored colour negative film, even if about four years out of date when shot, and even if then left undiscovered for at least that same amount of time again, will return good results without any of the forensic techniques you might have read about not long ago, when they salvaged film from an early Antarctic expedition.

Nevertheless, I’m not banking on my good luck holding indefinitely, so I will be making a while lot more use of my Bronica outfit over the next few months – at very least until my present ancient stocks of film are used up.

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The Rifugio Locatelli, or Dreizinnenhutte, visited on the day in question

Added note. I later realised that this isn’t the first chapter of this blog that covers stuff related to lost film. I am trying not to make a habit of it!

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Through a Window

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Another Venice blog. Proof of the spell my recent visit to “La Serenissima” cast on me. Oh, and also evidence I’ve had a little bit of time on my hands this year over the Christmas period!

I wrote in the previous chapter of this blog about the book “Dream of Venice Architecture” which I received as a Christmas present, and about the comment in one of its short chapters, regarding Venetian doors. This struck a particular chord with me, not only because I had taken a very similar picture of the same door featured in that chapter, but because for some time I had been thinking about making a small gallery of photos on the general theme of the doors and windows of Venice and the islands of Murano and Burano.

Well, the book gave me the spur to pull that gallery together. In truth, it covers a bit more than just doors and windows, as you’ll see.

The gallery is here. Enjoy.

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Comfort & Joy

 

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Not far from Rialto

Stand by. This is another Venice-related blog. Well, despite a pleasant pre-Christmas week in a cold and mostly overcast Derbyshire, Venice is where my photographic heart and soul has been for the past few weeks, since we returned from our recent visit there.

I’m writing the first draft of this on Christmas Day. As a gift, I got given a copy of a 2016 book called “Dream of Venice Architecture” (Bella Figura Publications ISBN 978-0-9907725-1-4) which has me entranced. I didn’t get to spend much time in bookshops when in Venice recently, otherwise I might have seen it for sale. I found out about it from the lovely community of Venice-lovers I’ve joined on Twitter, since I got home, and mail-ordered a copy.

Why “entranced”? Well, it’s a book of short essays on Venetian architectural themes, each accompanied by a photo by Riccardo De Cal. To add to the charm (for me, at least) none of the photos are captioned as such, but they are all exactly the kind of generic shots of Venetian detail that I love to take myself. I found I had several of exactly the same topic. This door (my shot appears here), for example, features in a chapter in the book about Venetian doors.

There’s a suggestion that someone needs to produce some kind of “taxonomy” of its doors. I agree. Over the years, on my travels, I’ve seen books and posters about “The Doors of Ireland”, “The Doors of Tuscany” etc, but never one on “The Doors of Venice”. They come in all different kinds and styles, as befits the age of the city, and in Venice, doors serve a multitude of purposes, including many designed specifically to keep water out from the lower reaches of canal-side properties.

I’d be happy to contribute some of my own photos on exactly that theme, too! Like the one below. 1518 is the property number, but the door could easily date from then, too – apart from the tell-tale digital lock!

 

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In San Polo

As a Christmas present to myself – no expense spared -and courtesy of a £7 bargain find in one of my local second-hand bookshops, I’m also now the proud possessor of a near-mint copy of the 1989 book “Venice”, by the late and occasionally controversial photographer David Hamilton. He’s not controversial for his Venice photos, but from the days when he used to produce highly “arty”, very soft focus, near-nude studies of teenage girls. He fell from grace. The Venice book uses his trademark soft focus style almost to a fault. I found myself almost shouting at the book, about some shots that would have been brilliant in sharp focus!

A couple of blogs ago, I wrote, in the context that it is so photographed, by so many people, that “unique photos of Venice are pretty much unheard of”. And guess what? Dating from a visit way back in the 1990s, probably when Cokin filters were all the rage, I found I had my own “David Hamilton” image. As if to prove my point.

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My inadvertent “homage” to David Hamilton

Suffice it to say, my Christmas Day was full of delightful reminiscence and wonderful discoveries and rediscoveries from the two books.

 

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