Sunday, 15 July 2018


This week I visited one of my favourite photo locations, Old Car City in White, Georgia. It's always a harsh day out, with high temperatures and mean biting insects, but I was really looking forward to adding to my portfolio of fabulous paint and chrome textures on abandoned vintage cars.

I spent most of the morning focusing on one particular car, a 1940s Buick Special sitting in perfect leaf-dappled light, hoping for a nice set or even a panel of images.

In fact, it's always a challenge to shoot in this light - very bright in the sun, quite dark everywhere else. I was working with a tripod and a shutter release, using live view to save bending over to peer through the viewfinder for every single shot. It took a while to make this combination work, but after a while I thought I had it sorted.

We went for a well deserved lunch break in the diner across the road, and I checked my images more carefully. They were all slightly out of focus. I had totally not handled things in live view.

I was really frustrated to have spent so much time and effort on some well framed shots which were completely useless.

The afternoon light wasn't working on my Special. But I did, sort of, get my tripod/shutter release/live view/focus combination to work. It was a useful reminder of how much I don't know, to try to be positive.

I wasn't loving my tripod much, though, by this point, so I switched to hand-held and concentrated instead on some darker shots, with shadows and suggestions, a little bit Gothic. A slight salvage of a painful day.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Belfast noir

Belfast suits black and white, I think. That might be partly because I can't shake off the belief that the late nineteenth century, when Belfast was at its most bustling, actually happened in black and white. I know, that's ridiculous, but the more photographs I look at, the more it feels as though it's the case.

More logically, the architectural shapes, the stone carvings, the steeples, the statues, the cloudy grey skies can be seen at their graphic best in mono. It's a moody city, and taking out the colour enhances this.

I've spent the last couple of months working on black and white images of Belfast for my Instagram account. It's been a great challenge and discipline. I'm including some of my favourites here, with location details at the end of the post.

PS: I just read an article on the Belfast Telegraph website that said that 611 households in Northern Ireland are still watching television on black and white sets. I love this.

Locations: ceiling, St George's Church, High Street; best roof in Belfast, Bradbury Place; wounded angel, City Cemetery; lady, Crown Entry; ironwork, Clifton House; mural and fencers, Hill Street; motto for life, Dundela Avenue; accidental angel, Donegall Road; artist's model, Carlisle Memorial Church; City Hall from Donegall Place; Bank of Ireland, Royal Avenue; Monument to the Unknown Woman Worker, near Eliza Street; greenhouse, Botanic Gardens; marble hand, Harbour Commissioner's Office; Titanic Memorial, City Hall; St Malachy's Church, Alfred Street; Jaffe Fountain, Victoria Street; St Anne's Cathedral, Donegall Street; Queen Victoria monument, City Hall.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Following Frances 5: Aughnacloy


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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...