Unspoilt by Progress?

When asked by the organisers of my forthcoming exhibition ‘A Time it Was’ to revisit some of the locations and produce current contrasting (or complimentary) images, I ‘thought’ my way around the area, trying to imagine where most change had taken place. Or indeed least change.

Although I visit these places regularly in the course of my work, and am certainly aware of changing landscapes, from industry to commerce, fields to houses, it was only by stopping and framing through the lens that I really had time to study and take in the giant metamorphosis.

We often stop and appreciate the beauty of a seascape or mountain view, and give the occasion some precious minutes of our time.

Rarely do we afford a shopping centre, factory complex or housing estate the same visual consideration.

Probably for good reason.

Solid swathes of low-lying ugliness seem to form our urban landscape today. I don’t suppose that since the Industrial Revolution the West Midlands has ever had a pretty face.

And I’m sure that when huge factories like Round Oak steelworks in Brierley Hill dominated the skyline, there were many people who were unhappy with it’s noise, smoke, and dirt. But it was a major employer, giving generations of families homes, food, and a future. And there was still green space around it, breathing space.

Today we have a massive shopping complex, complete with nearly a dozen car parks, providing a different sort of pollution, and a road system that struggles on every level long before the real rush hour begins. And it is not a thing of beauty. Coloured sheds as big as aircraft hangers, with music.

 

 

 

 

 

Two views of the same geographical location from Two Woods Lane, Brierley Hill, but forty years apart.

Progress of a sort, I suppose.

 

Posted in Uncategorized

Let there be Light

Exactly thirty seven years ago (to the month, if not the day) Princess Grace of Monaco visited Stourbridge, in the West Midlands, UK. That’s a bit like saying you were chatting to Mick Jagger on the number 74 bus to West Bromwich, or you bumped into Sir John Betjeman in the sausage queue on Melton Mowbray market. Mind you, I suppose the last one was once a possibility…

I photographed her meeting a bunch of local worthies at Hagley Hall, the ancestral home of the Cobham family. It was an absolute crush, with reporters, photographers, TV crews (and all those damn worthies) vying for a bit of elbow room.

I’m not sure whether my flash went off or not, or even whether I was trying for a natural light picture, which would have been very brave of me at the time, but I got an image that was an absolute swine to print in a conventional darkroom. Luckily, I didn’t have to print it too many times.

Consequently the negative lived in a little packet all on it’s own for nearly forty years, stored with thousands of others in a filing cabinet.

So how could something that had spent it’s whole life doing nothing but sitting in a bag, never seeing daylight, or fresh air, or even stale air for that matter, get covered in so much shite?

Princess Grace at Hagley Hall 1980

 

 

 

 

 

 

I chose this image as one of fifty-odd that I am exhibiting at my one-man show at Himley Hall, Dudley, in April and May this year, entitled A Time It Was.

I simply lost count of the number of hours spent spotting and cleaning up this image at actual pixel size in my editing programme. I suppose the consolation is that I could never have spotted an actual print to the same quality, with dust, hairs and scratches fighting for space on the neg with the same determination and voracity as the original protagonists in that room at Hagley Hall all those years ago.

Here’s a blow up of part of the image, showing the carnage.

Princess Grace at Hagley Hall 1980

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And here is the finished image. At least I now have a digital copy that can’t gather dust and scratches, alongside my original Tri-X negative.

All I need to to do is make a back-up, with maybe another, and possibly just one more…

Princess Grace at Hagley Hall 1980

 

Posted in Editorial/Press, Uncategorized Tagged , , , , , , , , , , |

The Unusual Suspects

kingfisher960I know I’ve mentioned in the past the notion of going with the first idea that comes to mind.

It could be that I’m very lazy. It could be that I just have brilliant ideas that simply have to be acted upon. It could be somewhere between the two. Then left a bit. Then left a bit more. Just right of lazy should do it.

A photocall at Kingfisher School in Redditch, Worcestershire for a Christmas production was the occasion.

‘A Christmas Carol’ – with a difference.

I walked into the dress rehearsal (yes, the kids are in costume, the teacher said) and didn’t recognize a single character. Just wing it, go with the flow, it’s hardly as if I’m in control was my thinking.

The teacher was calling out pupils who were going to be in the picture, and said pupils dutifully stepped forward and stood in a line against the wall.

Normally at this point my instinct would be to step in, re-arrange the bodies into some more meaningful composition, and go from there.

But I could scarcely believe the gift that the teacher was presenting to me. It was the stuff of nightmares, and I said thank you. There was even a sort of height measure in the blue horizon on the wall.

Very Unusual Suspects…indeed.

All I did was juggle the pupils around into some sort of height order, place the chap on the end and ask him to look down the line.

As I was taking the pictures the teacher commented “Oh that’s really cool.”

Naturally, I took all the credit. Well, it was my idea.

Sort of.

 

Posted in Editorial/Press

Nuthin’ Wrong with Dudley…

‘Dudley’s Great, Nuthin’ Wrong with Dudley…’

So says the inscription on Sir Lenny Henry’s commemorative MOBO award paving slab in Buffery Park, Dudley. West Midlands. United Kingdom.

Lenny turned up with friends and family to officially unveil the slab.

lenny henry slab2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was in fact a massively unofficial unveiling, in that the atmosphere was very relaxed and laid back, with jokes and a relatively chaotic running order, presided over by no-one, and Lenny constantly referring to the mayor of Dudley as ‘chap’.

Lenny started the proceedings a little early, because he decided to, which meant a clutch of local councillors arrived late, and things just stumbled on from there. Nuthin’ Wrong with Anarchy…

lenny henry slab

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The main thrust of conversations and interviews involved memories of his childhood years and growing up and playing around Buffery Park (his family home was only a few hundred yards away).

First snog and cigarette (not necessarily in that order), games of football and cricket, and generally just hanging around (before it became hangin’ out) after school and weekends, before the internet and Wii.

I didn’t bring up the subject, because he probably wouldn’t have been interested, but my early teens’ were spent doing the same things (except the cigarette) in the same place. I lived less than half a mile away in the other direction.

And his mention of cricket in the evenings on the park, played by the local West Indian community, reminded me of a picture I took round about 1971, on my way back from work as a staff photographer with the Dudley Herald, as I walked through the park to my home. Is there a Henry in there somewhere?

Cricket Buffery Park

Shot on a cheap telephoto lens bought at Dixons, I hopelessly under-exposed the picture, and never managed to get a decent print from my darkroom days. Only when I scanned and digitized the image, forty years later, was I able to get something out of it.

Nuthin’ Wrong with Progress…

lenny henry bench

 

 

 

 

 

More old Dudley and Black Country photos can be found here

 

 

 

 

Posted in Editorial/Press

Times they are a changin’…still

A text from a reporter on the Dudley News posed the question “Can you do a picture of a local councillor in the dark on a council estate where there have been reports of young teenagers walking the streets carrying pick handles and hammers? A sort of Mean Streets of Netherton picture…”

Mean Streets of Netherton??  Netherton is not New York. At all. Netherton is not even Dudley. Netherton is only just Netherton.

“Course I can. No problem.”

A picture in the dark, on an estate where the locals patrol the pavement with pick handles and hammers, at a time of  year when the wind and rain is just picking up nicely…how could I make this worse for myself?

A tripod and flash technique that I’m a bit of a stranger to would be a decent start.

So off I went. Eventually. Because this was my last picture of the day, following a bunch of other pictures for other newspapers, which meant I arrived at the job with the bare minimum of preparation. All will be fine. A great little motto.

I met the councillor at the pre-arranged spot, and started to set up my kit. Within seconds, possibly milliseconds, a group of schoolkids who would have done Fagin’s gang proud, appeared just five feet in front of me.

” Why ya takin’ a picture of our ‘ouse?”

“I’m not taking a picture of your house – I’m taking a picture of this lady with the street behind her.”

“Dad, ee’s tekkin’ a picture of our ‘ouse!!”

Dad came striding over.

“Why’m yo tekkin’ a picture of my ‘ouse?”

“I’m not taking a picture of your house. I’m taking a picture of this lady with the street behind her.”

“Yom tekkin’ a picture of my ‘ouse. I saw ya bendin’ down.”

“I’m just framing the picture. I haven’t taken a picture yet.”

“Ee is!”

“Shurrup”

“Om gunna be in the perpa.”

“An’ I am..”

“GERRIN THE ‘OUSE NOW!!”

“I ay fuckin’ gooin’ in” chirped one of the cherubs of the gloom.

In a bid to show his credentials, one of the youngsters, a lad of about 10yrs (he couldn’t have been a teenager, he wasn’t carrying a pick handle or a hammer) spun himself backwards in his plastic go-kart, flew off the pavement and fell out into the road. “Fuckinell” he proclaimed, and I think it was some kind of self praise rather than a criticism of technique.

So eventually, I shot the councillor at 1 sec at f11 on a 24mm lens, manually metering the scene, with the flash fired remotely to give some modelling light.

I was quite happy to leave that area of Netherton. My aunt lived a couple of streets away many years ago, and it just seemed so different then. I grew up with rough kids, but there were boundaries. Mean streets.

In Netherton?

chester road960

 

Posted in Editorial/Press

Roses are Red, Roses are Blue…

A dyed rose has sat in a bullet glass on our mantelpiece for many months now.

It was a gift to my wife who was a guest at a gay wedding.

And the rose, a little faded and jaded now, is still a gay little thing in itself.

When it first arrived the colours were quite bold, and possibly even a little brash. But time has done what time always does, and now it’s a little old man of a rose, a sort of Quentin Crisp of the floral world.

I’m not sure why it took me so long to decide to photograph it. Maybe subconciously I was waiting for a little humanising process to take hold.

Anyway, a few weeks ago I finally responded to the little feller, and set up tripod, Fuji X-E1 and 60mm lens, and shooting almost wide open so that only the flower head was sharp, I made a portrait shaped photograph, using available light, which was quite flat so the colour in the rose jumped out.

blogrose1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It somehow reminded me of paintings from the Dutch School, a simple richness of tone and design.

A small print I made of the image now occupied it’s own space on a table in the same room. Now I had two dyed roses to look at.

I decided to live with the small photograph for a while, and then when I was quite happy with it I’d make a large print and frame it.

On another wall in the same room I have three Robert Mapplethorpe prints in frames. Flowers. Square.

I think those photographs probably inspired me to photograph the rose in the first place. And the square format really suited the subject. I suppose the isometric qualities of the square bring a stillness and formality to the photograph.

So I shot it square.

blogrose2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Still the same flat daylight, but a little more formal and abstract due to the crop. Live with that for a while, I thought, and give myself time to compare the two.

Only days after taking this picture, the ambient light changed dramatically as the sun moved round a little, and at about 6pm a different light came in to play, which totally altered the scene.

Because the light arrived suddenly, it was clear that it wasn’t going to hang around with the sun moving so quickly. Seize the moment.

Tripod, Fuji and 60mm were quickly assembled, and total manual control gave me this one.

blogrose3

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the moment it’s only framed using Photoshop, but this is the one I’m going with…perhaps.

Watch this space.

 

 

Posted in Moments

Bats, bats, bats…and more bats

I suppose we’ve all wondered how a bat goes to the toilet.

Oh? Just me then…should have known.

Anyway, they just let go, so to speak, while hanging there, upside down. Bat splutter is not a sound I’m familiar with, but I assume it happens, or not.

I did learn some other facts in Dudley Zoo’s bat cave, I just can’t seem to remember them.

Stourbridge News chief reporter Bev Holder was doing a story on bat feeding, and I was taking the pictures. Did I need any special equipment, I was asked. No idea , I thought, and if I did I probably didn’t have it.

What could go wrong?

Calamite. Catastrophe. Hilarite. The Loach family motto.

Throw an infinite number of cream pies into an infinite number of faces, something has to land on the nose. Maybe.

Not knowing anything about the location (pitch black, as it happens) or proximity of the bats, I decided on machine gun tactics. Staccato bursts of flash and frantic focussing would see me through. Not a hope.

My granddaughter, while climbing in woodland a few months ago, misjudged her final lunge at the top of a slope, and nearly came a cropper. “EPIC FAIL” she informed me. Only five and knows about EPIC FAIL.

I decided to have a go at EPIC FAIL. Turns out I’m ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT AT IT. A Natural.

bat6

 

 

 

 

 

For protection, I’d been issued with a pair of one size fits nobody yellow gloves. The sort that people with small hands wear.

I got most of my fingers into most of the gloves’ fingers, in almost all the right order. With my hands looking like something that could exist and procreate quite happily at the bottom of the world’s deepest oceans, I set my camera to manual focussing mode, doused my shoes with disinfectant, and followed Bev and Cara the keeper into the humid blackness that was home to eighty creatures of the night.

Almost immediately, but unbeknown to me at the time, one of my Fingers from the Deep made a bee-line for the controls on my Nikon, and reset a couple of switches from Manual Control to Auto-Failure.

The next half hour was full of feathery brushes with those things that can see in the dark, frenetic flash firing that reminded me of the bridge scene in Apocalypse Now, and the slightly unsettling thought that at any minute a bat was going to pooh on my head.

bat1 bat2 bat3 bat4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had no idea what I was getting, the camera was making it’s own mind up what to  focus on, and the vast majority of the pix were wildly unsharp. Even on a 24mm wide angle.

With judicious cropping and sharpening, I managed to salvage a dozen or so shots from over a hundred taken.

I might have to go back one day with purely manual lenses.

But now I had to drive thirty miles down the motorway to Redditch, to photograph a man holding a watch.

bat5 bat7 bat8

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Now what could go wrong there…?

Posted in Editorial/Press

Going with the first idea..

I freelance regularly for a group of newspapers in the West Midlands/Worcestershire.

My jobs arrive by email, with usually no discussion about picture requirements, with neither the organisers nor the organized. Not ideal, but that is the way it works (or  doesn’t, occasionally). I’m not too sure what the photographic colleges would make of this, but hey-ho. Shitting in the dark again..

A fair proportion of the jobs I get are straightforward because of familiarity, and all that is required is a variation on a picture I did previously for a similar set up.

Every now and again, a picture is suggested to accompany a story about whatever. There is no guidance as to what picture might be taken, just outline details regarding the job.

The Mayor of Dudley organises a charity bash at the end of the year to raise cash for his chosen causes.

My jobsheet said mayor to be pictured with local band E of E (NOT East of Eden, oh no, definitely NOT. NOT.NOT. Ever…) Anyway they turned up, much, much younger than their 1970’s counterparts, at Dudley Council House.

On the way to the job, I thought about what kind of picture I might take – considering I’d been given no guidance whatsoever. The very first idea I had was to pose the mayor, cllr Steve Waltho, as the front man in the band, with the other members doing a moody promo take around him. It was a start.

At the Council House, interested parties were gathered. I asked if any kind of picture was laid on, was there a particular image they had in mind?

It became clear that I was the only person thinking about what picture might be taken, given the various components available. Somebody was walking around holding the Black Country flag…I mean, honestly, what the doo dah had that got to do with anything? Any number of people had rows of zeros colliding across their brain, and nobody appeared to be owning up to the press call.

Plan A won the day. In lieu of Plan B,C or D.

The Mayor and Mayoress were up for it, the band knew exactly what was required, and a two minute photoshoot gave the result. I could hardly call it planning ahead, but in the circumstances, it was fine.

I did my pix, then two other photographers who contributed absolutely zilch to the occasion copied my pix. Their images were probably on Facebook long before I uploaded mine to the newspaper. But I’m not bitter…

There is no copyright on ideas. I learned that a long time ago.

mayor bandblog

 

 

 

 

 

The day after this, I had a job involving Worcester Warriors Rugby Club coaching primary school youngsters at Stourbridge RFC.

Again, I thought about what kind of image I might aim for. It’s good to have an idea before you go, just so that you’ve got something to work towards if the actual job itself doesn’t provide obvious press pictures.

Images of eight year old lads pitted against six and a half foot Neanderthals came to mind…this required the presence of said Neanderthals, naturally. Good job I ditched that one then.

Another image that presented itself to me, highly achieveable, I reasoned, was a young pupil being hoisted up as happens in a line-out, by a couple of burly forwards. It turned out only one burly forward was available, so a mini-giant stepped into the role, and the pre-imagined picture was achieved. The young lad had a great look on his face, and a nice pic was the result. Nobody taking shots over my shoulder this time, so we’ll call it a draw.

warriorsblog

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The lesson I reminded myself about here was pre-planning. Have at least half an idea what you want to do, have a good idea about how you might achieve it, then you might not have to resort to nicking another photographer’s idea.

 

Posted in Editorial/Press

Go Ape Young Man – or Woman

“Faaaaaaaaaarrrk!” “Sheeeeeeeeeet!” “Sorry!!”

Birdsong gave way to blasphemy as an army of zip-wiring, tree scrambling outdoor pursuitists whooshed, whistled and thudded their way around the vertigo inducing playground that is Go Ape.

“Sheeeeeeeeeet!”

I was photographing the flying funsters for Liz Walsh’s Top Dog Days website, but with my own size 11’s firmly planted on the forest floor.

ape13

 

 

 

 

The Cannock Chase site in the West Midlands is relatively compact, apart from the segway route, which heads off into the depths of the woodland. So three cameras with 28mm, 180mm and 300mm lenses attached gave me pretty good access to all the treetop locations.

“Faaaaaaaaaarrrk!”

Another flying expletive whistled down the wire. Up in the air, a safety-harnessed throng of primary school pupils, parents and pensioners scurried and worried their way around the course. It seemed that once up, the only way down was at the finish.

ape29

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ape41

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Oh Sheeeeeeeeeet…..Sorry!”

Apologies to the grandkids.

Another flying grandma zipped and pirouetted into a climbing net, while a gaggle of giggling gogglers chimped away on iPhones forty feet below. (Chimping at Go Ape…..snigger)

Ultra cool no-handers gave laid back smiles as they glided through the autumnal yellows and reds, while silent segwayers gently bounced and s-bended their strange alien way into the leafy distance.

“Faaaaaaaaaarrrkinell!!”

Time for coffee and cake.

ape1 ape20 ape21 ape26 ape37

Posted in Editorial/Press

Out of Nature – art in landscape

I’ve no idea why, but I often struggle with 3D art in a gallery. A space that seems perfectly suited to a flat two dimensional image somehow seems inadequate to a piece of sculpture. I suppose a painting or photograph operates on a plane, and you never see beyond that surface.

With a piece of three dimensional art, you can always see round and beyond it, and that, for me, always causes problems, because what you see beyond or around the sculpture affects your response to it.

Enter Out of Nature, a sculpture exhibition outdoors in the grounds of Newport House, Almeley, Herefordshire. Associated with the Foley family of Great Witley,  the Watt’s of steam engine fame, and Shakespeare’s Falstaff, Newport House is hosting the exhibition till October 25 2015.

There are sculptures that look like art, and sculptures that look like fun. Organic sculptures by Kate Raggett that have the fragrance of country fruit, and wooden carvings by Ed Elliott, one of which fits nicely in with the current ITV series based in Herefordshire, Midwinter of the Spirit, a somewhat lumpy and unsatisfying tale of demonry in the county.

monk

 

 

 

 

 

But the main thing is, the sculptures are in their natural setting, which makes a world of difference to how you see them.

dogsculpture

 

 

 

 

 

There’s a cafe, it only costs five quid to get in, and you can lose yourself for several hours in the lovely surrounds of a Herefordshire house that you probably never knew existed.

The artists are friendly and approachable, I ate some of Kate Raggett’s sculpture (with her permission) and what else can you get for a fiver nowadays?

Pop along, have a moan at art and all that, then come away realising that another world exists alongside your current one, and there’s a fair chance that there is more over the horizon too.

bullsculpture face horses

Posted in Uncategorized