Sunday, 17 June 2018

Following Frances 5: Aughnacloy


I

Frances, William and their two little boys arrived in Aughnacloy in July 1903. The manse, attached to the church, stands towards the southern end of the town, on the corner of the Monaghan road. It's an attractive grey stone building with what must have been a substantial garden behind it.



Frances had already set up manses in Ballybay and Swanlinbar. She was becoming used to taking stock of a new house and placing their own modest possessions in it to make it feel like home. But this time, it was harder work, more of a chore. Two-year-old Fred and baby Donald didn't make her task easier, and her pregnancy, too recent to be shared with anyone but William, left her tired and sometimes dispirited. Soon, the whole family was ill with summer colds, and Frances found herself thinking too often of their lovely house in Swanlinbar and their friends there, a time which seemed in retrospect sunnier and simpler.

And Aughnacloy had something of a reputation in Methodist circles. Several previous ministers had died there. Nora describes it as "a most unhealthy manse". Frances was not superstitious. But she knew the stories, and she worried a little.


II


Baby Nora was born in December, safe and sound. The congregation, now becoming friends, celebrated with them, and Christmas was especially joyful.



Later that year, however, Fred started complaining about a sore throat. Within hours, he was feverish and nauseous. Then an itchy, bumpy red rash appeared. It was scarlatina, one of the most feared of childhood diseases. Frances knew that Fred had to be isolated to protect the rest of the family, but it was too late. Within a week everyone was ill, even little Nora. 

Some of the ladies from the congregation helped with nursing them, and Dr Phillips called regularly. William and Nora recovered quite quickly. The two boys caused greater worry, their symptoms lingering much longer. The doctor was most concerned about Frances herself, who was suffering terrible headaches and stomach pains. Scarlatina was a frequent killer, and he began to fear the worst for her. He had been attending illnesses in the manse for years and now, looking at her feverish face and the listless little Fred and Donald, he decided that drastic action was needed.

Dr Phillips told William that, unless Frances was moved, he could not be responsible for her life. Horrified, William arranged for his wife to be taken by carriage to her sister's house in Fermanagh.





III

The two practical men, the doctor and the decorator-turned-minister, set to working out what was wrong in the house. With the help of another member of the congregation, they began to investigate pipes and tanks, the attics and chimneys, even lifting the corners of floors. They found an answer in the dining room. Lifting a flagstone under the rug, they found an open sewer directly underneath. Appalled by the sight, their friend left. William and Dr Phillips grimly replaced the stone over the awful sight and began the complicated process of arranging to have the house's plumbing rerouted.



IV

How do I know all this? A little is speculative, some is careful research, but most is clear from Nora's brief and rather grim account of her parents' life in Aughnacloy.

"After three years work in Co Cavan Father & Mother moved to Aughnacloy where I was born. It was a most unhealthy manse & several ministers had died there. And when our family had Scarletina & Mother was very ill the Doctor said she must move or he would not be responsible for her life. Father attempted to get things righted & got a man to lift the floor in a room. When the floor was up sewers were discovered with only a flag for covering, and the man refused to do any more! No wonder the family was ill."

When I visited, I wasn't expecting to like the town. Frances didn't remember it fondly - the horrible illness coloured her memory of her two years there very strongly.



In fact, I found it quiet and pretty. A lovely broad high street, ideal for a weekly market, with attractive houses just waiting to be beautifully restored. An appealing town pump, set where water carriers could enjoy the view over the bright green Tyrone and Monaghan countryside. Two other churches on the main street, well cared for and busy.



The Methodist church itself is plain, painted pink, with pleasing arched windows. I was given a very warm welcome. There were eighteen of us there the morning I attended, and almost everybody stopped to talk to me, interested in my quest. The service was simple and moving. The singing was three times as impressive as you'd expect from eighteen people. I was glad to have my expectations so thoroughly contradicted.

Just one small thing jolted me. Beside me on the wall was a marble plaque, engraved with the name of Henry N Kevin, William's colleague from his time in Cootehill and Ballybay. Henry Kevin died at the manse in Aughnacloy in 1912.

I'd found out enough about Mr Kevin previously that this was actually upsetting. His obituary says that he had become weak after repeated bouts of flu and had been about to ask for a year's leave from his work. I hope his final illness was nothing to do with the conditions in the manse.




V

I traced the rest of his family. His daughter Helen married a man from Aughnacloy, Samuel Hanse, a few years later, and they emigrated to New Jersey, part of the flood of people leaving Ireland at this time. Henry's widow Annie followed, living with Helen and Samuel in New Jersey until her death in 1939. Little Helen, the child Frances played with on the floor of the manse in Cootehill in 1899, lived until 1997 and the astonishing age of 105, reigning as the matriarch of a large extended family. That made me happy.




Sunday, 10 June 2018

In harbour



Nothing makes me happier than an evening visit to a fishing harbour with my 100mm lens. I have hundreds of images to prove it.


It's maybe a bit of a niche interest, a detail shot of the beautiful rust on a fifty-year-old prawn trawler. But this weekend I've been trying to go a bit more mainstream with some colour-themed grids of my harbour close-ups. I'll put them in my Etsy shop and hope that someone else in the world shares my love.



Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Revisiting


New Smyrna beach, on the east coast of Florida. This was the shoot where I first had the idea for Matthew Loney's Miracle, one of my audio-visual pieces.

It's a gorgeous beach at any time, and we had a mellow, slightly misty day for our work, resulting in lovely muted blues, greys and beiges - a long way from a stereotypical Floridian palette.

This week I revisited this work and chose some images to edit in colour, rather than Matthew's black and white. I've done so much work with the mono images that I'd really forgotten what they had originally looked like. I submitted some to Arcangel, the agency that handles my commercial work. And I gave in to reveries of later summer afternoons on hot Florida beaches. Just a few weeks to go and I'll be there.







Sunday, 20 May 2018

Things we lost in the fire


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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 7 May 2018

Quiet

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Judge not....



Last week I took my first faltering steps into the world of judging photographic work.

It was a challenge. I tried my very best to rise to that challenge and do justice to the work of all the entrants, but really it was a fairly sketchy first attempt.

The competition in question was for less experienced photographers at Northern Ireland level. Less experienced doesn't mean less good - there were a substantial number of excellent shots in the collection to be judged.

Working as part of a three-person team, with one very experienced member, was what made me think I'd be brave enough to do it. And the most enjoyable part of the process was the evening judging session, with no audience, where we looked at all the images and made our decisions.  We had a pretty good level of agreement on which ones were in the top half of each category, and then which ones were in the final dozen or so. But it took time to whittle those ones carefully down to the top three, the highly commendeds and so on. There was a lot of worthwhile discussion and persuasion. It was instructive to hear the opinions of my fellow judges; sometimes they noticed things that I didn't, and sometimes my opinion changed, based on their points of view. With only a little compromise to ensure that everyone's opinions were represented, we ended up with impressive line-ups of winners for our three categories.

A few evenings later came the really difficult bit - presenting our decisions to an audience, largely composed of people whose work was included in the competition.

Considering I'm someone who talks all day long for a living, I find talking to a photography audience surprisingly nerve-wracking. They're my peers, and a lot of them know a lot more than I do. By the time this particular evening rolled round, I was beside myself. I was hoping for some kind of cataclysmic weather or political event that wouldn't actually harm anybody, but would definitely involve the cancellation of the competition. Sadly, it was a reasonable sort of a damp day and Northern Ireland ticked along in its usual not overly competent but definitely not cataclysmic way.

So I had to stand up and talk about the images. I had read every book and article I could find about good judging - and of course I had my own high-minded advice to follow from this article

And I sort of managed to do it. I was fortunate to be able to present many of the images that I'd been most impressed by. I think I conveyed a good sense of enthusiasm for these. I tried to concentrate on their artistic content, the messages they were presenting and how they might make viewers feel. I tried not to tell personal anecdotes, but I slipped up once or twice.

What I found really difficult, though, was making suggestions or giving advice that might be useful to the photographers. The few times I managed it, it was hedged about with so many perhapses, maybes, mights and possiblys that my intended recommendations were probably completely lost. And sometimes I just couldn't bring myself to say anything negative - so the photographer might well wonder why, if it was so good, it wasn't sitting amongst the top prizewinners?

I also realised afterwards that I'd said very little about anything technical in all the feedback I'd given. Composition, content, mood, emotion, use of colour had featured heavily, but I'd not discussed things like depth of field, exposure, editing techniques and so on. I'm not sure how that happened.

All in all, it was an educational experience. I don't know if I'll ever be asked to judge anything again. If I am, I'll do it better next time. If not, the respect that I already had for all the good and well-meaning judges I come across will increase a hundred-fold. A win either way.

The image at the start? It's my own. It's called Close to my Heart. I included it here because it's one that I thought judges would very possibly not like. But it was placed first in my most recent competition, and I'm thinking how very well-informed, sensitive and wise that judge was..... :)

Friday, 30 March 2018

Lough Ennell


Lough Ennell, just south of Mullingar in County Westmeath.



This was one of my stopping places (the only one without tea and cake) on my way back from Portumna to Belfast yesterday. It was the generous recommendation of a friend - and such a beautiful place.



It was a dull day, but the clouds were lovely, reflecting in the tranquil surface. Much of the lake is very shallow, with rocks and plants emerging elegantly from the water.



It feels old, despite the calm. It has a busy history of crannog and ringfort building and buried silver. Now, it's surrounded by big houses and golf courses, but on a dull Irish day, there's enough wildness left to imagine it in ancient times. It even has swans - but by the time I reached them it was raining heavily and I needed some chocolate cake. I'll aim to return in May, with a picnic.