10 September 2021

Ten pics

 A Small Step (up the hill of beans....)

I have been taking photographs since the days  when William Henry Fox Talbot was a lad - or so it seems.  Perhaps I exaggerate, un petit peu?  My first camera, a Kodak Brownie 44a, was a smart little thing, and I still have a number of the snaps I took with it, some in perfect condition, and that was some 60 years ago.....

Then through the years I slowly crept up the ladder - my first 35mm being a Boots Beirette, then I acquired an SLR, a Russian  Zenith, with a brilliant lens.  After that, for some reason, I went for a Russian rangefinder camera, a Zorki 4, before going back to single lens reflex with two Pentax MXs (one for black and white and one for Kodachrome) and a series of lenses, until the digital age. 

I am, I suppose, pretty much entirely self-taught, which is to say I have read (some of) the manuals, viewed exhibitions, read books (by such as Roland Barthes, Susan Sontag and John Berger) and learnt by practice. I have done a small amount of professional work, with pictures published in various papers, magazines and books, and I have had, in Italy, two exhibitions. Nearly all my pictures, however, would be classed as amateur, though perhaps I now rank, as Canon will have it, as an enthusiast

Anyway, after all these years of snapping away, I began to wonder about some kind of qualification, or mark of recognition. I can't really explain why, but I joined the Royal Photographic Society to see how I could develop my skills, and realised that they have three grades of Distinction - Licentiate, Associate and Fellowship. To quote the RPS, to become a Licentiate of The Society, applicants must show variety in approach and techniques but not necessarily in subject matter. Demanding but achievable for most dedicated photographers.

So there we have an aim.  Something to achieve.  As a friend of mine says, it ain't worth a hill of beans, but, as I soon learned, standards are high and it (certainly) ain't a piece of cake.....  In fact, I failed twice to gain the distinction.  So I thought I would try once more.....

These ten pictures are the ones I recently submitted for a panel to assess.  I did have some help, and I am particularly grateful to Michael O'Sullivan who gave me advice and spent time with me in two 1-2-1 discussions.  And so, here we are....

The first picture in my panel is of Amanda on the beach at Holme-next-the-sea in February this year.  She has a winning mischievous look, but the scars on her nose tell a tale of disorientation and pain.  We moved to Norfolk in January and she was completely lost. We resorted to medication to keep her calm, but unfortunately this contributed to a fall in the bathroom and damage to her face.  And this, I think, gives the portrait some depth, with her trusting eyes and cheeky grin contrasting with the discoloured skin and scabbed nose.

To balance this intimate portrait I placed this picture of my friend Antonio next.  This was taken on our last, pre-pandemic, trip to Italy, in Antonio's house in Genazzano,  near Rome.  We have been friends since I first went to Italy in 1976, and we keep in regular contact. Antonio's father came through Italy in WW2, crossing paths with my dad, though in the Army not the Air Force.  He also picked up a sweetheart on the way, from the South, again not unlike my dad, except he married his girl and brought her back to England after the war, where they raised their two children. After graduating in Modern Foreign Languages from Reading University Antonio moved to Italy where his parents had taken up residence outside of Rome. There he befriended Gino, with whom he founded The Fiddler's Elbow in Rome, an Irish pub which is still to be found near Santa Maria Maggiore.

To cut the story short, Antonio spent the latter half of his working life as a seriously undervalued employee of the British Embassy in Rome, but he has now retired and lives quietly with his partner, Giuseppina, in a gothic apartment in the old part of Genazzano.  A brilliant linguist and highly literate man, he remains a great friend and I hope this photograph does him some justice.

My third picture was taken in late spring on a walk near our new home.  The countryside abounds with hares here and in the spring they are easy to spot charging about in the fields.  This one, however, was having a rest when we came through a gate on a footpath and instead of rushing away, he paused a while and let me take a few pictures with my new Canon mirrorless camera, before he decided to lollop off relatively calmly.  They are beautiful animals, and I thought this shot nicely caught that almost effortless acceleration they are capable of when the time demands, along with his wary eye and wonderful whiskers....

As a centrepiece to my panel, I chose this picture from the Musée Oldmasters Museum, which is part of the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, in Brussels.  I like the perspective, the eye-catching red walls, and the figure of the guide/guard wandering into the distance.  I love visiting art galleries, especially when they are quiet.  I like to wonder about the people framed there, and their lives, and to imagine entering into different times, different worlds.  I was once a guide in rooms in a castle in Scotland which had two enormous Canaletto paintings on the wall.  Every day I could float down the Grand Canal on a gondola before turning to look out the window at the gardens of Versailles....

Then another natural history picture taken with my Canon with its superb 500mm lens.  This kestrel posed obligingly, if somewhat haughtily, for me on a tree in the Chilterns, and by chance I was uphill and so at almost the same height as the bird, which makes it a slightly unusual viewpoint.  Having worked as a residential volunteer for the RSPB at a number of their reserves, I have tried many times to take good shots of birds, but all too often they see me coming and are off before I can raise my lens, but this fellow wanted to stare me out, and so I got him full face....

The pandemic closed us all down, and for two years I have been fidgeting about wanting desperately to be on the move again.  This picture reminds me of the diversity and fun of travelling; it was taken in the Grote Markt, in Antwerp, and the gentleman was demonstrating to me how one should drink jenever, which is usually poured to the rim of the glass, so you don't pick the glass up, but bend towards it and sip.  One of my judges said he had no idea what this chap was doing (when the pictures are appraised there is no information allowed about where they were taken or anything), but now you know!

I lived in Italy for twenty years, in and near Rome, and I am still awestruck by the city. This is a view from the terrace bar of the Mecenate Palace Hotel, where we have stayed on recent visits.  Yes, there is quite a bit of dark sky in the picture, but that Roman sky is so velvety.....

Anther great European city is Vienna, and this view of the steep roof of Stephansdom (St Stephen's Cathedral) seemed to work well with my overall panel, the diagonals linking with the surrounding pictures and the colours providing a nice contrast with the art gallery above.  I also find the window fascinating - who lives in there I wonder, and why is it placed exactly there, its own triangles at odds with the geometry of the tiles?

Another night shot - this time from a low level.  The Polite Police in the Grand Place of Brussels keeping an eye on the tourists.  This is a glittering square, full of lights and glorious architecture, but the presence of armed police is a reminder that perhaps nowhere is entirely safe these days.....

And finally another portrait.  This is Martin, who helps at the bakers attached to Redbournbury Mill on the River Ver near St Albans.  He kindly let me take his picture a couple of times and hope he won't mind this exposure now?  I miss our Saturday walks to the mill from our home in Harpenden, and the superb multiseed bread we used to buy, and Martin was always friendly and interesting to talk to.  His head is a work of art in its own right; I hope he is well and that his beard will never grow shorter!

So, that's it.  Not a race nor a competition; but a selection of pictures offered up for considered judgement against a set of criteria, which are:

Camera work and Technical Quality 
Visual Awareness
Overall Impression

full details of which can be found by following this link: LRPS Guidelines 

I think that as with so many things there is bound to be some subjectivity in any judgement, but having been through the process three times now, and having learned how some pictures can be 'improved' in certain ways, and how some pictures, or indeed an overall impression, may not sufficiently meet the criteria, I have to confess to feeling a sense of achievement and satisfaction that my submission has been recognised as being of a certain standard. No, my pictures won't suddenly fill the pages of National Geographic, nor feature on the cover of Vogue; I am not (yet) a member of Magnum; and yes, there's a long long way to go before I can be compared to Ansel Adams or Henri Cartier-Bresson et alios, but, hey, it's a step.....

And the next step will be to aim for the Associate Distinction, (which requires a body of work/project of a high standard and a written Statement of Intent. Strong technical ability using techniques and photographic practices appropriate to the subject).....

We'll see.......

28 August 2021

Visut to Naaarj

 At the still point of the turning world. 

I am in Sainsbury’s.  

Not the store, despite my fond memories of their long-vanished hall in Berkhamsted, where mum would queue from counter to counter, dairy here, meat there, and then file to pay at the desk at the end, where a busy woman added and cashed and said thank you, and everyone was so nice in a post-war kind of way....

No, I am in Lord Robert Sainsbury’s sitting room, or a reconstruction of such, darkened by Francis Bacon, lightened by Degas.  

Robert Sainsbury (1906 - 2000)
 by Francis Bacon

Here, in the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia, I wander under Norman Foster’s roof, bumping into Anish Kapoor, Modigliani and Picasso, wondering where the exit is, and thinking that if this is their drawing room, how could their kitchen be?  Frink in the Frigidaire (who uses that word now?) or Giacometti on the draining board (bit of a stretch there....)?

Head (1997)
John Davies

I am on my way to Norwich, where there is a queue about a quarter of a mile long to get into Norwich Cathedral.  

The line is slow moving, but patient, like the obligatory shuffle passing an extinct dictator.  Some of the file have a tonnage to rival an ocean-going tug, others sail turgidly as if dressed in barrage balloons – and I say this as an impartial observer; no judgement intended.  Children are either asleep in parental clutches, or squawking about being fed treats.  


It is a long time since I have seen such a queue for a Cathedral, but this is not to admire the intricate stonework and the bosses of the fan vaulting, 

nor the Hanging Chrismatory, 

nor even the Despenser Reredos, a late 14th century retable by a Norwich artist and thought to have been commissioned by Bishop le Despenser to celebrate his suppression of local support for the Peasants' Revolt in 1381 (but we'll dispense with the context for the moment....)

– no, this is a queue to enter through the cloisters to the nave where “Dippy” is on display.  Please see https://youtu.be/QourkgYSgtA for more on how this a cast of a Diplodocus, one of the largest creatures ever to roam the earth, that lived about 150 million years ago, was assembled, and https://my.matterport.com/show/?m=fKWBeCy5wgu to see how it looks now.


Ok, there are positives indeed, such as interesting young people in the natural world, and, possibly, in introducing them to a fine cathedral which they might otherwise have not entered.  But....




Art and artefacts, architecture and archaeology, all things bright and beautiful (did the Lord God really make them all?) The city, one of the five largest settlements in Norman England, and then in the seventeenth century the second richest city in the country (after London), has seen better days.  The splendour of its cathedral (its spire second only to Salisbury), 

the imposing nature of its castle, the scattering of some thirty flinty medieval churches 

amongst its complex of lanes and market places, the curling river Wensum 

and the brutalist sprawl of its university all commend it to the visitor, 

but there is a post-pandemic, perhaps post-Brexit, tiredness about it just now.  

Museums and churches are partly closed, 

the Royal Arcade sports "to let" signs in its windows, 

the Market Place lacks vitality and Tombland is choked with traffic, going nowhere.


On the river a couple embrace as their motor boat, blaring what some might call popular music, careers toward the bank.  By the Cow Tower

a fifty foot remain of the city’s two miles of defensive walls, families wander past, regardless.


There are fossils and remains and reminders of the past everywhere.  A pub called The Wild Man recalls the mysterious appearance in Norwich of Peter the Wild Boy in 1751.  Strangely this is a story connected with my own past as Peter resided for much of his life on Northchurch Common, near where I grew up, and he is buried in the graveyard of St Mary’s there, where my grandfather was organist and choirmaster for many years.


Even stranger, perhaps, is that in wandering up Pottergate I bump into another Wild Boy, a local resident who I recognise as also hailing from Hertfordshire.  

This antiquated ruin accosts me for the price of a pint, and together we piece together our histories over beer and sausages.  

[Good to see you, Joe!]



There are fossils in the cathedral, and ruins in the streets.  The once grand city has its attractions but somehow seems tired and lacklustre.  Is this the state of the United Kingdom as a whole today, or is this merely a blip in the wake of disease and politics?  Over the door of the 13th century chapel of St Catherine of Alexandria, in the south transept of the cathedral, someone has inscribed a line from T S Eliot’s Four Quartets

At the still point of the turning world.  

The quotation is from Burnt Norton, and it continues:

Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,
But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, 
Where past and future are gathered. Neither movement from nor towards,
Neither ascent nor decline. Except for the point, the still point,
There would be no dance, and there is only the dance....


It’s near midnight. Alcopop shrieks and tiddly giggles fill the street as three girls share something crazy. One dances provocatively, and laughs, the world so light and dark. 

It is Tuesday night in Norwich, and the rest is silence....

Earliest Human Relatives
from The Origins of Love portfolio (2004)
Hiroshi Sugimoto

....I can only say, there we have been....





21 August 2021


 Once I saw a Devil in a flame of fire.....

In my ongoing attempts to 'improve' myself - which begs certain questions - I am on a train to London reading John Higgs's little book, William Blake Now, a book which endears itself to me on various levels - not least because it raises questions about the self-importance of Tracey Emin.

I say not least, because that really is an unimportant attraction. But not to worry. I am immersing myself in the metropolis for a day or so, 'bettering' myself as I wander (?)

In, London, published in Songs of Experience in 1794, William Blake, wrote:


I wander thro' each charter'd street,

Near where the charter'd Thames does flow.

And mark in every face I meet

Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

Times change.  These days perhaps we see masks of weakness, masks of woe.....

In every cry of every Man,

In every Infants cry of fear,

In every voice: in every ban,

The mind-forg'd manacles I hear

But that doesn't stop us looking, and taking pictures.....

I am in Tate Britain.  One of the greatest monuments to slavery yet to be torn down.....

Paula Rego (with whom, incidentally, I share a birthday.... yeah, why should you care, though perhaps you will remember it now?) articulates outrage and  echoes some of Blake's concerns:

But most thro' midnight streets I hear
How the youthful Harlots curse
Blasts the new-born Infants tear
And blights with plagues the Marriage hearse

I know little of Blake.....  But I can, and will, learn....  In America, A Prophecy, he wrote:

The Guardian Prince of Albion burns in his nightly tent:
Sullen fires across the Atlantic glow to America's shore,
Piercing the souls of warlike men who rise in silent night.

Q: Would the world be a better place if the likes of Johnson and Raab had read/taken heed of/understood these lines?  

A: Probably not....

I am in Dulwich, trembling at the thought of Mr Farage (who with a schoolboy smirk haunts the place) and his €70K+ pension from the European Parliament to which he contributed so much:

I am here to see a bunch of flowers:

And assorted photos of plants etc.....

But what really interests me is Rembrandt van Rjin's Girl at a Window, who gazes naturalistically at us from 1645 as if the future was a dream:

And then, just by her is Titus, one of Rembrandt's sons, who died soon after this portrait was finished, in 1668, just a year before the master himself expired.  The haunted, slightly pained, expression contrasts with the girl, and reminds us that to every yin there is a yang - to every upper there is a downer.....  

Or so it seems?


Back on the street, I think again of Blake's words:

How the Chimney-sweepers cry
Every blackning Church appalls,
And the hapless Soldiers sigh
Runs in blood down Palace walls

And how, just eight years later, Wordsworth would write:

Earth has not any thing to show more fair:
Dull would he be of soul who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty:

Composed upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802

Though to do him justice, he did also write:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;

The World Is Too Much With Us

So, Once I saw a Devil in a flame of fire.......

I call this selfie, Self-immolation, and append William Blake's poem: A Divine Image

Cruelty has a Human Heart,
And Jealousy a Human Face;
Terror the Human Form Divine.
And Secrecy the Human Dress.

The Human Dress is forged Iron,
The Human Form a fiery Forge,
The Human Face a furnace seal'd,
The Human Heart its hungry Gorge.


About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;

Musée des Beaux Arts 


W. H. Auden 


There is so much to learn, and I have squandered so much time.  

(But some of it has been fun..... and I will dance with Paula Rego and sing with Blake.....)