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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North and South of The River

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As I write this, it’s less than two days until my new exhibition, “Watching The River Flow – The River Medway and its Moods”, is due to open at the “Below 65 Gallery” in my home town of Maidstone, in Kent. I’ve just returned from the “dry run” – working out the best order to put the 35 framed pieces of work on show on to the gallery walls. They’ll then be hung tomorrow, with time for any last minute tweaks before we open the show to the public.

I was there for less than an hour and a half, but I’m emotionally drained. There are several reasons for this. I’ve lived for the last several years with hundreds and hundreds of images that were eventually culled into the collection for the show. I’ve seen them as they then grew into a pile of wonderful prints, courtesy of the skills of Chris Clark, but this was the first time I had seen them all framed up and ready to hang.

Gallery supremo Elaine had already laid out the framed photos on the floor around the gallery in a way that she thought would display well. As ever, she did a brilliant and inspiring job off almost no briefing from me. We swapped a few around, selected a couple of shots to stick in the window, and so far as practical input from me was concerned, that was almost it. Next time I see these things, they’ll all be on the wall, and we’ll be preparing to open the doors.

But the whole process really got to me, on several levels. I guess anyone who has ever had a solo exhibition will have been through this kind of thing.

Firstly, I was overwhelmed at seeing the whole volume of work finally come together in one place, other than on the hard drive of my computer. The printing and simple black framing on a white mount was, of course, superbly well done. One gets so very used to seeing photos on a screen these days that seeing your own work as a series of decent-sized prints “in real life” is both a shock and a delight, in equal measure. Everything from “Was this what I expected it to look like?”, through to “Oh my God, it looks wonderful” ran through my head in a matter of what seemed like seconds. I spent a lot of time thinking out loud, too. Sorry Elaine!

The show consists both of colour and monochrome images, and there are a couple of large canvas-based artworks of mine in there too. Several types of view, and a few inevitably recurring motifs that come from photographing a river, trees and reflections, repeat quite often in the show. So, I was very sensitive to the need to break these up to avoid monotony. Elaine was far more relaxed about it. With great wisdom she pointed out that I was far closer emotionally to these images than anyone else was or ever would be, and that I was probably worrying too much about their relation one with another – to the extent that I was worrying about things she’d not even noticed in some of the shots anyway, despite spending a solid two hours with them – longer than any visitor would.

One thing I spotted quickly, because I was intent on looking for it, was evidence of a style. No, not the wooden thing that gets you over a fence. S-t-y-l-e. I’m told that much of my sports work demonstrates a personal style that makes it easy to recognise as mine. I’m flattered, but I wondered whether I had a “landscape” style that showed through in this collection of work. I’m wary of style. I like the thought of it, but would hate to think it meant predictability, or worse: something that becomes overbearing, or just a bit boring. Well, the jury is out. Probably not my call to make, anyway!

And we’ve done something good with the four images in the show that ask the question “What would John Constable have made of this landscape?” What, you ask? Well, come and see the show. All you need to know to find it is here.

Next stop, opening day. 36 hours to go, as I finish this blog.

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Down By The Riverside

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As a ten or eleven year old in the mid 1960s, I had far more freedom than parents these days would allow their kids. With a couple of school pals, I’d regularly splash most of my pocket money out on a London Transport “Red Rover” ticket, and take a couple of buses from south east London up to the centre of “Town”. For me, the best free show to be had was the National Gallery.

I don’t remember having a favourite painting back then, or even a favourite artist, but there was stuff, like Titian and other Masters, I stood before trying to work out what the heck was going on. Something like the work of John Constable was rather more accessible. I could readily grasp scenes of woodland and rivers, and in my daydreams I used to think myself into them. I was well-satisfied with a book on Constable for my eleventh Christmas. It had literally fallen apart a few years later.

Influences like that, when you’re that age, have a habit of lingering . Maybe they didn’t surface in art at school, because of the guy mentioned early on in this blog , but they were always there or thereabouts when I was out photographing landscapes for my own pleasure. They seem to have resurfaced quite strongly in more recent years. Maybe it’s a “second childhood” thing?

I’ve also concluded that stuff like that is seldom a piece of conscious thought at the moment it strikes. It’s far more subliminal than that – or at least it is with me. It also happens too often to be dismissed as “mere coincidence”. However, I do have moments when, like an itch I can’t seem to scratch, I point the camera at something that reminds me of something else that I can’t quite put my finger on. And just occasionally there is the sheer delight of coming across a scene that immediately hits me like a flashback.

This is a visual thing, so an example might help make these ramblings clearer.

I had a phase a few years back of quite liking mid 20th century American art, including some fairly esoteric artists like the “magic realist” John Rogers Cox. Recently, I saw on social media his 1942 piece “Gray & Gold”. This:

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When I’d first seen that, in a book, I was taken by the huge detail in it, perhaps unusual for a painter of that genre. Seeing it posted on Twitter, not that long after I’d been out on the North Downs in Kent this summer, was a strange experience, because while there, I’d shot this:

 

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Now, when I took that photo, nothing, absolutely nothing, in my head said “Hey, this looks just like a John Rogers Cox”. It was the appearance of the Cox work on Twitter that provided the trigger. Coincidence? Subliminal brain activity? Who knows which, or whether those two are actually even different experiences?

I’ve blogged before about my “inner John Constable” occasionally coming to the surface. Being in the right place at the right time might indeed just be coincidence, except that it seems to be a bit more common than might be dismissed in that way. I had been pleased to discover that, in 1803, Constable had sketched battleships on the River Medway at Chatham . During my few years of wanderings that eventually led to my new exhibition “Watching the River Flow”  , I’d often wondered if Constable had ventured any further upstream? There’s no evidence at all that he did, but I’d begun wondering what he’d have made of some of the scenes I’d been photographing?

Psychologists and others recognise part of the human subconscious known as the reticular activating system .  It’s believed to be responsible for heightened awareness and those “deja vu” moments. It’s my best guess for the influence that occasionally shows me views along the Medway that I’d like to think Constable might have painted. Had he ever visited, of course.

That’s where the image at the head of this blog comes in, of course. I shot it on a completely unprepossessing, damp September day a few weeks ago, when I came across the Environment Agency guys tidying up fallen trees on the Medway riverbank near Barming Bridge. As an image, it presented itself pretty much fully formed. I don’t use Photoshop, and a tweak to the saturation of the colour is the most this has had. It was, of course, immediately added to the collection for the exhibition, and you can see it there from 1 to 29 November.

End of extended advert!

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You Don’t Know What You’ve Got ’til It’s Gone…

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For reasons I don’t need to go into here, so I won’t, I’ve had a bit of a hard time of it in the last few weeks. Depression is a bastard. Anyhow, I gave myself permission to go out today with a couple of cameras, along “my” stretch of the River Medway not far from home, in the hope that, as so many times before, it would spread its calming influence on me.

Given that I’ve been photographing this area regularly for about five years, it surprised me to find that my records showed it was over six weeks since my last visit to anywhere along the six miles or so that make up “my patch”. I’m usually away from home during much of September, though not this year. As a result, I was seeing familiar sights as I’d never quite viewed them before – summer’s green just fading, but no sign of autumn, nor of autumn’s clear air. Everything felt heavy and impenetrable. The sky was mostly grey, with just occasional character, and the sun was just failing to push through. Had I not felt that I needed this outing, the conditions wouldn’t have tempted me out.

The one thing in the day’s favour was the stillness in that heavy air. Reflections were perfect in the calm, and I made for a spot that must by now have become familiar to readers of this blog. I’ve unashamedly used elements from it on several occasions. One shot taken there is also the principal motif for my upcoming exhibition. Another, from early spring, is the header photo to this current blog. However, I was in for an unexpected shock.

My favourite spot had simply gone. That’s right – gone. It was a little promontory right at water level, prone to becoming a bit overgrown and muddy, occasionally used by anglers and frequently by me. Some work had been undertaken to clear the luxuriance of nettles, hogweed and other nasties away from parts of the river path hereabouts, and I needed to bash a way through a few yards of overgrowth to try to find the tiny path to the spot. Yet suddenly, there was nothing. Just water where it hadn’t been on the last time I visited. It seemed that the area I had grown to love – no more than a few square yards – had been submerged or washed away, even though the river was, if anything, below its normal level.

Only a few weeks ago, I’d been drafting some notes to accompany the photos in my exhibition. I’d lamented not having yet shot this spot with the perfect combination of still water, good sky and one of the local swans in the right place! I’d ended the note with the words “There will be other days…” Well, not now, there won’t.

I had a friend who frequently commented “Nothing’s for ever”, and at times it’s been a strangely consoling personal philosophy. It’s going to add just a touch of something (not even sure what yet) to my exhibition to know that this will make some of the images literally unrepeatable. In one sense, that always happens, because you can never recreate the moment you pressed the shutter, etc. Being literally unable to stand at the spot you used adds another dimension. It was such a great point to shoot from. Joni Mitchell’s words, from “Big Yellow Taxi” seem quite apt for this blog’s title.

All is going well, by the way, for my exhibition in November. I’ve taken delivery of fliers and posters for the show, printing is all finished, and framing is about to begin.

Here’s the flier. I hope you can pay a visit:

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A Picture Of You

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Not much of a “landscape” theme to this blog this time, but I hope you like it.

A few years ago, when I think I had a reputation for ceaselessly hopping from one project to another, it would have amazed us all if I’d ever taken on anything you would regard as “long term”. Life was just too short!

Well, life is just as short, and there’s no one more surprised than me to find that I’ve now photographed Maidstone Parkrun on more than 60 occasions, and contributed 15,000 photos to the Maidstone Parkrun photo archive. Yes, there’s not a spare zero in that. The total really is more than fifteen thousand.

The origins of my relationship with Parkrun already goes back quite a way. I blogged about it here.  I didn’t need it to last long from a running perspective, but I turned my hand to photographing the event most Saturday mornings. I quickly found that the course and the people made it a very satisfying part of my photographic week. As a photographer, it’s been a chance to experiment and occasionally try out new kit and techniques. You’ll only find the successful ones on display, of course!

There’s huge potential in photographing something like 300 people running on an out-and-back route. For a start, I can shoot all of them twice if I’m so minded. One of my photographic preferences, when I’m not doing landscape work, is for quite tightly cropped shots. Slowly, I realised that I was gathering quite a nice collection of what I started calling “Parkrun Portraits”. Each week I seem to be adding a few to that particular archive. More even than that, I’ve begun to realise that there are parts of the Maidstone Parkrun route where light and background occasionally allow some portraiture in the classic “chiaroscuro” tradition! (I kid myself perhaps, though not a huge amount.)

I mentioned to someone recently that I was thinking about what to do with these photos, and received one of those compliments that hit me right out of the blue. “Ooh yes!” Sarah said. “Some of the ladies have started putting waterproof eyeliner and stuff on, so that they can look their best in your photos!” Bless you all. Fellas – what are you going to do to keep up?

Well, I’ve started taking soundings on where to go next with this stuff, and I’m very open to ideas. Everything I’ve done for Parkrun to date has been for free. There’s exhibition and sales potential in the portraits. These sort of things cost money, especially as, say, quality framed versions. The market for each photo might be quite limited too, I realise. However, it strikes me that in a world obsessed with stars and celebrities, we need to be showing more positive images of ordinary people of all ages, doing sport.

Do feel free to add a comment below if you have a reaction to this, or any ideas. And watch out for more. This is an itch I really do feel I need to scratch.

And yes, I’m easily old enough to recall the 1962 Joe Brown song from which this blog’s title is taken. Here’s a nice 2003 version .

 

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Red, Red Wine

Landscape from Radicofani 2

I like my wine.

I don’t drink a lot of it, but what I do drink is carefully chosen. A fair bit of my current collection at home (around 60 bottles) reflects places I’ve been to over the past few years. It’s predominantly red wine, though not exclusively. I don’t have room at home (or the money) to have a proper wine cellar. Like much in the house, where the wines are kept occasionally gets a bit disordered. I’m not organised enough to keep a proper wine book, so I try to keep in memory the stuff that needs drinking soon. However, as I found very recently, my memory’s clearly not what it was.

Winding the clock back nearly ten years would find us enjoying Christmas 2006 at the Palazzo Contucci, in the delightful Tuscan town of Montepulciano. It maybe wasn’t quite as grand as that might sound, but the Palazzo is right on Montepulciano’s Piazza Grande . It’s the only building there offering a self-contained apartment looking out of the piazza. It was also inexpensive and available, when as usual, we left our booking a bit late. I’ve included a photo here of the interior of our simple but elegant apartment, and a panorama of the Piazza Grande. Ours is the building with the red and white notice on the wall, to the right of shot.

Piazza Grande Montepulciano

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We travelled miles around Tuscany on that trip. I was still shooting film, and lugging a medium format Bronica and tripod with me, so I don’t perhaps have as many photos from then as would be the case if I went back nowadays. The main shot above is an intentionally “arty” shot of the landscape near Montepulciano early one frosty, but technicolour morning. One of the great things about visiting Tuscany at Christmas is that sunrise is at about 8am. Dawn starts are really quite painless, even allowing for the photographer’s head still pounding from the previous evening’s indulgences.

Our apartment had surprisingly poor cooking facilities – ok for Italian-style breakfasts, but in no way capable of managing a proper meal. We ate in the evening in a couple of great restaurants, even given that there were only about three in the town reliably open at that time of year. However, our adopted hang-out was the Caffe Poliziano in the main street of Montepulciano. It’s famed for its coffee and cakes, but does a good line in evening meals too. There are photos of it on Trip Advisor etc, but it doesn’t have its own web site, and we were there in the days before smartphones could capture every experience. Its daytime menu still includes “ciocalato calde con marajuana”. Presumably not quite the “wacky baccy” sort!

We visited it on Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve during our ten day stay, partly because anywhere else had been booked up long in advance by locals. As a parting gift we were given a bottle of Poliziano Vino Rosso 2003 for Chrismas and a 2005 for New Year. The wine had been our choice at nearly every meal we had there, and the family running the place were proud of its quality. The bottles were smothered in jackets and other laundry in our suitcases when we flew home. They mercifully arrived intact, having shared the journey with several bottles of the best Vino Nobile di Montepulciano, bought from the wonderful wine cellars of our Palazzo Contucci hosts  Quite how we pulled that off and stayed within our paltry Ryanair baggage allowance from Pisa to Stanstead I’ll never know!

The only wine book I do keep is of the labels off bottles we’ve enjoyed – providing they soak off successfully. Not all do. It was this book I reached for a while back when The Wine Show on tv featured the Poliziano Rosso (incidentally, about £15 a bottle from Amazon ) Neatly stored inside my book were the labels from the Contucci bottles from 2006, and several other great wines from other trips, including some that I’d forgotten about. I was puzzled neither of the Poliziano labels were in the book, but then, as I said, not all labels soak off.

Six weeks or so later, I was rummaging in the wine corner at home, trying to make room for a couple of indifferent bottles of white wine we’d received as gifts recently (note: I am not a Chardonnay fan!). Behind the cases and storage racks is the domain of dead spiders and the accumulation of the grot of years. Something clinked there as I moved a box. Taking my life in my hands, I reached behind, and pulled out a very dusty Poliziano Rosso di Montepulciano 2003! A second grope produced its sister bottle, the 2005! I was a bit stunned, both by the coincidence and the flood of memories that hit me pretty instantly.

There was panic too. Would it still be drinkable? Recommended shelf-life was just 3-5 years. This was Year 10! Nothing for it but to try. It would be the perfect accompaniment to the pork we were having that same evening. Despite being a 13.5% wine, it’s quite a “light” red, with an almost browny tinge in certain lights. I’d got a reasonably recent point of reference for the taste – we’d had a bottle, albeit a 2013, last Christmas Eve in a restaurant in Ghent, in Belgium.

Well, happy to say, it (we opened the 2003) was just about perfect. In fact, the half of the bottle we left for the following evening was even better. I guess I’ve now got two years maximum now in which not to lose the 2005 bottle, and to enjoy its delights. Won’t be that long, though.

Rosso

(Incidentally, Poliziano was a Renaissance character, from the late 15th century. He features in several paintings in Florence I will have seen without making the connection. This is a short biography.

Salute! Cin-cin!

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“Red and Yellow and Green and Blue….”

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I get to shoot some great events. The Events Team at the Heart of Kent Hospice, for whom I give my photographic support as a volunteer, always seem to be able to put on good stuff. Today was no exception. I got to be official photographer at the latest Heart of Kent Rainbow Run.

The Rainbow Run began in 2014. That year there were a number of others, including a big one at the Olympic Park. I wasn’t sure that it was something that would endure – after all, it’s not everyone’s idea of fun to go and run 5 kilometres while having all different colours of powder paint thrown at you! However, 2016 has seen the third Heart of Kent Rainbow Run. The three events to date have raised something like £50,000 or more for the Heart Of Kent Hospice.

The powder paint used at these kinds of events has been specially developed as non-toxic, washable, child-friendly, etc, etc. It’s probably suitable for vegans and safe to polar bears and penguins for all I know. The one thing it is definitely not friendly towards is cameras! In the first year of the Rainbow Run, when everything was a novelty to participants, a nice, clean cameraman, walking around in a hi-viz jacket, trying to photograph everyone else in their paint-covered splendour was something of a sitting target. I always managed to escape with self and camera more or less clean, but only just. When I shoot these things, I put the camera in a large, clear plastic bag, with an elastic band to seal the open end around the lens barrel. This means that as long as I’m careful to keep the UV filter that always protects the front lens element free of paint dust, all is well. It’s quite hard to see precisely what I’m shooting, as looking through the viewfinder means seeing through a) my glasses, and the film of paint dust they may have attracted, b) a layer of plastic bag and c) the glass of the viewfinder on the camera. It’s equally hard to review shots on the rear LCD. However, by trusting the autofocus mechanism, probably more than 80% of the shots I get are usable.

There was a light and surprisingly variable breeze blowing at this year’s Rainbow Run. Whereas previously it was fairly easy to stay “upwind” of the worst of the clouds of paint dust, this time, it variously hung in the air and swirled around. There was also a new innovation in the finish in straight to the run – “The Rainbow Zone”. Last year, there had been a view that rather too many runners had finished the event looking a bit too clean. This year, there was a team specially placed fifty metres from the finish line, and armed with huge amounts of all of the colours of powder paint. Their specific task was to ensure no one got through colour-free! It was a task they performed with gusto. I stayed as far back as I could, but with the lens I was using, that was not awfully far. Pretty soon I was aware that not only was I getting a fine sheen of paint powder over my clothes, but I was also inhaling copious amounts of it. I’m a hay fever sufferer. Discovering how much paint was reaching my sinuses came when I found I was depositing rivers of paint-red snot into my tissues! It really was the red paint powder that seemed to get everywhere. Or at least, it was the most visible. Have a look at the full set of my photos here, and you’ll see scenes that could have come from one of those zombie horror films!

Just where that stuff got to on the people I was photographing, who were getting plastered in it from all directions, hardly bears thinking about! Even as a “non-combatant” I had red socks and feet, a rime of paint round the neck of my t-shirt, under my watch-strap and so on, by the time the event was over! I’ve seen photos of some of the really big Rainbow Runs, where the paint powder is literally pumped over the participants through nozzles. Ours was only thrown by the handful. And yet the participants, young and old, appear to love it.

I gave my camera and lens a very careful inspection when I got home, and a thorough external clean with a brush and compressed air can. Next time, I want to use a zoom lens that has both internal focusing and internal zooming, so that I can seal the lens with the plastic bag right up to the lens hood end. It’ll be that or somehow try to get hold of a full underwater housing, or similar!

Goodness only knows what these events are like if it even drizzles, let alone rains. The idea of dressing for it in a full bio-hazard suit, carrying a fully encased camera is not too far-fetched! I’ve not yet thought through an option to use something like a 4k video camera, in a full weatherproof case and to aim to pull stills from the video. That might be a goer and leave my DSLR to fight another day.

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The Dimming of The Day

Panorama 34 6 5 16

No, don’t panic!

I’ve blogged a couple of times in the last year about the degenerative eye condition that I was diagnosed as having. It’s been an anxious few weeks recently, leading up to my first annual reassessment. That was a week or so ago now, and I’m rather happy to say that they found no change at all in my condition, compared to twelve months ago. No, it’s not gone away – that isn’t ever going to happen – but it has not got any worse. I’ll take that.

I said I’d not blog much about this thing, but that’s hard, because my eyesight is so central to everything I do as a working photographer, rather a lot of my waking hours are inevitably affected by thoughts of what the future might hold.

There was a fairly brief period when my reaction was “get out there, see everything, photograph it all”. My diary became a description of pandemonium. Had I tried to sustain that fantasy that I could ever have achieved those goals, I’d probably have damaged my physical and mental health more than my eyes! You might think that the next stage would be benign acceptance, and a gradual realisation of “che sera, sera” (whatever will be will be). Maybe that will come. It just hasn’t done yet.

No, in my case, my diagnosis remains a highly motivating factor. With Fuchs Dystrophy, I’m not suddenly going to wake up blind, and any “fade to grey” is going to be slow and progressive, I’m told. The false start in my reaction to it that I’ve already mentioned was motivated in the direction of quantity. More work, more photographs, new places, new topics, new techniques. And, in the way I was approaching it, it was unsustainable. Some of that will stuff still happen, I’m sure, but I’m increasingly being led by this thing to reassess a number of aspects of the quality of what I do, rather than the quantity. OK, sometimes the two overlap. Poor quality can occasionally be revealed by excessive quantity, just as good quality can come from holding back on the volume.

I’ve never been an out and out “art” photographer. I’m glad about that, because art trends change quite fast. I’d hate to be looking back at a whole load of past material that, even if it was ever in it, has now gone out of that elusive thing called fashion. No, my work, for business and for pleasure, is angled towards shooting what I see, and rendering it in a way that I’d like it to be remembered. A key task of anyone who takes photos for someone else is, of course, to ensure that how “I” want it to be remembered is also how “they” want it, too.

That’s actually quite a complex equation. That’s been brought home to me quite often as I prepare for my exhibition in a few months from now, of the very best of my photos of my local stretch of the River Medway. I’ve never had an exhibition just of my own landscape work. I’ve exhibited pieces alongside others, but my 2014 one-man show was a mixed bag of topics. Sitting down, often and for long periods, to try to distill something like five years of work along the river into around 35 images was tough, as I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog. My worry at the time was that I’d be wanting to de-select pieces when I’d been out and shot newer stuff. Well, that has happened (and is perhaps still happening even as deadlines loom!), but what has been more of an issue was something I’d not expected.

New material has made the cut for the show less by being, say, a view I’d not shot before, but by being of a quality that I couldn’t bring myself to leave out. I have finite wall space for the show, so if something is going to come in at this stage, something else is going to have to come out. Quality of one piece (measured against a number of factors) inevitably brings into question the quality of other pieces of work. Were this not so, I’d basically be adding and removing pieces at random. Chris, who does my printing, has been a really helpful part of the assessment process, because she’s been prepared to tell me when she doesn’t think something will print up in the way I imagined it, and she’s been good at gently spotting flaws that I’ve got too close to see.

So, is the quality of what I’m doing progressively getting better and better? I guess I’d want to hope so, but that’s just my own view. Will visitors to the exhibition be able to see the difference between early work and later work? I don’t know the answer to that, although my get-out is that I’m probably going to be the only person who knows which are the early works and which the later!

And there’s the point. I’ll only really be happy with an exhibition of work that is of the best quality I can achieve. Why would I want to be producing “just good enough” when I have 100% vision, and risk the regrets that might bring when, at some future point, I can’t even do as well as that? Perhaps that sounds a little morbid? Sorry if that’s the case. I’m still trying to work this thing through.

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