Saturday, 21 January 2017

Written on skin

Waning creativity, a loss of love, a sense of having passed a terrible milestone - William Butler Yeats at the age of fifty, in his "Lines written in dejection". I don't think William celebrated this birthday with a party.

Written on skin, though, the words of his poem become their own opposite. The fifty-year-old man is a piece of art, embodied communication and creative partnership.

If William had only offered to Maud Gonne his own sad blank face as a poetic canvas, perhaps it would have sparked a more positive day....

Lines Written in Dejection

When have I last looked upon
The round green eyes and the long wavering bodies
Of the dark leopards of the moon?
All the wild witches, those most noble ladies,
For all their broom-sticks and their tears,
Their angry tears, are gone.
The holy centaurs of the hills are vanished;
I have nothing but the embittered sun;
Banished heroic mother moon and vanished,
And now that I have come to fifty years
I must endure the timid sun.

[Thanks to J for enduring a stressful shoot on my front doorstep, where we had to keep running inside each time we heard someone walking down the street, in case they might be alarmed by the sight of him all tattooed up. Also all credit to Boots No.7 Stay Precise Felt Tip Eyeliner, which writes like a nice pen and washes off easily...]

Kind of cool footnote: William and Maud were born in 1865 and 1866 respectively. We came along exactly 100 years later.

Saturday, 14 January 2017

Starlings on the beach

J's stay in Northern Ireland over the Christmas holidays coincided with some of the loveliest winter weather I've seen in years. And one of the nicest days was Boxing Day. We made the most of it with a drive round the County Down coast, a walk on every cold but beautiful beach we came across, and dinner at the Mourne Seafood Restaurant.

These images are from my firm favourite, Minerstown. The tide here was at that perfect point where it revealed an expanse of beach but left enough flow for reflections. 

This was about three in the afternoon, and though it was still light, dramatic clouds crossed the sun, creating fantastic contrasts of light and dark, all magnified by the reflecting tide and balancing the distinctive shape of the Mournes in the distance.

Just as we were about to leave, a beautiful flock of starlings flew in from the east and tumbled for a few minutes around the base of the clouds.

I was leaping unsteadily round the wet beach trying to catch both the starlings and J in the same shot, hoping they'd move between us and the Mournes, avoiding the sun and finessing my angles. A couple of times I only saved myself at the last minute from falling full length onto the wet beach. It was not an elegant display. Fortunately J was looking out to sea.

The birds moved on. I wrung the seawater out of my woolly gloves and the hems of my jeans, and we headed further down the coast. I persuaded J that this was all just a normal Irish afternoon. It was, and miraculous too.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Gwyneth's lost wings

Fifty-three years ago, these little butterflies were carefully collected, and their identifying labels were completed in tiny, meticulous handwriting.

A few weeks ago, I found them, dusty and broken in a glass jar in a Greyabbey antique shop. The writing is so small that I couldn't read it until I'd taken photographs of the little collection. On my laptop screen, the name of the writer was clear, and it rang a bell.

I texted my parents, who immediately remembered Gwyneth Gotto, my mum's inspirational biology teacher at Methody, and her husband Viv, zoology lecturer at Queen's and a world-class tennis player. 

Viv's career was impressive and is well documented, but it was Gwyneth who interested me more.

Gwyneth was the sort of teacher that all of us in education would aspire to be - hugely enthusiastic, unconventional in her practical trousers, pushing her students to question and challenge accepted ideas, encouraging the strengths of every individual. She loved her subject so much that she spent her 1947 honeymoon running a holiday field course at the marine biology centre in Portaferry. But most of all she loved to communicate her enthusiasm for biology to each pupil she taught. 

More than sixty years later, my mum can remember specific things Mrs Gotto said to her, word for word, encouraging, knowledgeable and humorous.

A legacy as excellent as this little collection is touching. Something to aim for.

Sunday, 1 January 2017

2016, part 2

In which I look back over the second half of 2016, photographically speaking, with lots of links to click on if you'd like to see more...

July brought first a fortnight in Florida, then a few more weeks in Georgia, by way of the ever-fabulous Savannah. I spent a happy day at Old Car City, home of the best veteran cars in the US, and had some fun making a little audio-visual of these later.

I also appreciated having a beautiful model about, and after a little vintage clothes shopping we staged some shoots in the mellow evening light at the North Georgia farmhouse.

The summer break had started well, with two photographs accepted for the NIPA exhibition, but it almost ended in disaster after a careless mouse-click in Lightroom. I accidentally synced my catalogue to my mobile catalogue, which had nothing in it, and at a stroke I'd lost two years, hundreds of hours, of work. I did actually cry. I thought there was a possibility that the back-ups I'd done before leaving the UK might restore some of it, but I wasn't at all confident. A million thanks to Darren Brown for carefully fixing everything on my return, despite his shock at my haphazard folder system. Back stuff up, people.

September, back to school, autumn evenings claustrophobically setting in, can be a bit of a gloomy time for me, but I'm always nerdily excited by the thought of European Heritage Open Weekend. This year I visited Gracehill for the first time and made a spooky little story after my Templemore Avenue Baths visit.

And I achieved my long-held ambition to see inside Riddel's Warehouse, with its excellent ironwork and evocative Belfast-a-hundred-years-ago atmosphere.

Throughout August and September I'd been working with my very kind mentor Gerry Coe to prepare a panel for an LIPF distinction assessment. If you want to experience a rollercoaster of photographic emotions, have a go at this .... from thinking you have some quite nice work, to thinking it all totally sucks and success is a ridiculous delusion, and everything in between. I spent the assessment day sitting very nervously in a hall full of tense candidates, watching each person's precious work being displayed in turn and either succeeding or being dismissed. The guy beside me disappeared for a smoke break every ten minutes, on his third attempt at an LIPF, which wasn't really helping my jitters. I knew I'd fail from the start, as I listened to the eight judges comment on other people's work, all of which seemed much better than mine. Finally, I watched my own ten little prints go up on the display stands and wanted nothing more than to snatch them down and just go home. So when the panel passed and the friendly cheer went up from the gathered candidates, I couldn't quite believe it. It was definitely the biggest deal of the year.

October brought my usual little jaunts around the peninsula...

...but it finished on a big high with a half-term trip to Venice. I stayed at a charming Airbnb in Cannaregio and walked and walked and walked. I know Venice quite well, but this was the first time I'd visited specifically to take photographs, and it was a fantastic break. Food, wine and a bit of Italian chat figured too, obviously. It's still one of my favourite places in the world.

Visiting Burano for the first time resulted in a particularly enjoyable day.

November brought a couple of thrills too with the sale of an image to an independent publisher for use as a book cover, and my acceptance as an artist at Arcangel Images. J benefited too, when the image of him walking on the beach was keyworded by the inhouse analysts to include the search term "young man". That has provided plenty of material for boasting for the foreseeable future. 

December is almost over now, and as I look back I can see what a positive and encouraging year it's been for me as I've worked on my photography skills. Big thanks to the many people who've helped and encouraged me - it's very much appreciated. Thanks to you, my readers too - it's always fantastic to see and hear that people have enjoyed looking at my work. And here's to a 2017 full of beauty and creativity to come.