Nothing Ventured, Nothing Gained

A good friend who follows and appreciates my work suggested I enter this particular image into the Kendal Mountain Film Festival as they were running a photography competition as part of the event and had a category called ‘Urban Adventure’. Now much as I love this image, it’s not the kind of image that I’d like to be known for, only because if I aspire to anything it’s portraiture rather than street or sport or ‘urban’. But I thought what the heck; I was pretty happy with the image and a lot of people had been commenting that it was very good so I thought I’d enter.

And blow me I was the runner up and won a pair of socks!

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Mick, the Blind Runner

I met Mick and Mike about a month ago quite by chance. They ran past my house as I was leaving for a day trip to Brighton with my mother. We were already in the car and about to drive off as they ran past; the moment I saw them I cut the engine and chased after them on foot.

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As a young teenager our family took part in a sponsored bike ride for the RNIB. At the time we were a big cycling family and owned a tandem that my brother and I would sometimes race with my dad. We rode stoker (the person on the back) to his pilot. As part of the charity bike ride, my dad rode pilot to a blind stoker, as did many other people taking part, and the memory has always stuck with me. When I saw Mick run past, being guided by Mike, it resonated, and I knew it was too important a story to miss. I ended up photographing them both in the car park of the closed down pub opposite my house.

I rarely ask to do follow up shoots with people I’ve met spontaneously. I have tried a few times but the results are invariably no better than the ones taken ‘in the moment and in some cases they have been worse. I’ve learned that my work is at its best when it is spontaneous and in the moment (or perhaps it is me that is at his best in this situation). But Mick and Mike are local and the story is compelling so I felt I wanted to do a follow up.

Mick lost his sight 16 years ago as a result of a genetically inherited condition that can result in blindness in later life. His children and siblings are also carriers of the genetic marker, but only time will tell if they also end up losing their sight. I cannot fathom how difficult it must be to lose a faculty as significant as sight at any age but Mick seems to have embraced this desperately unfortunate outcome as if it were an opportunity to stick two fingers up at mother nature. In fabulous defiance of his condition, Mick only took up marathon running and triathlon after he lost his sight. He trains with Mike, as well as other members of Horsham Joggers, but it is with Mike he seems to have developed a particular bond. It is very apparent that they both get something profound from their engagement with each other; they run using a chord that they both hold so that they are ‘tethered’ together. Mike provides enough commentary to both guide Mick and paint mental pictures for him to help his orientation and his enjoyment.

I arranged to meet them in the local park at first light. It was cold and clear and I hoped that the mist and frost would add an extra dimension to the composition over the original portrait, which had been shot mid-morning on an otherwise bright but overcast day. I wanted to photograph them after they had been for a run partly because I wanted their body heat to be visible if possible and partly because I wanted their activity to be an authentic part of the composition. I also wanted their running attire, in particular their hi-vis vests, to be part of the composition. This was one of the elements that worked so well in the original; in addition to being very bright and visually arresting, the hi-vis jackets also told the story of their partnership without needing any additional explanation.

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Photography, for me at least, is about looking and seeing; it’s about seeing the things we take for granted and the things we often miss because we are too busy or too preoccupied. When I set out to photograph Mick the irony of making a portrait of someone who is blind was not lost on me; if anything I wanted romantic irony to prick the viewer into reassessing the value of their own vision and to start trying to ‘see’ as well as look. So it was particularly ironic when having got home and downloaded the files from the shoot, that I noticed that the vests Mick and Mike had previously worn, and which marked each out as the ‘blind runner’ and the ‘guide for blind runner’, had somehow got mixed up. Mick was wearing the guide’s vest and Mike the blind runner’s.

How could I not seen this, in particular, how could I have not seen this while engaged in actively looking and seeing them, in photographing them? My first reaction was of incredible disappointment; the shoot was ruined and I would have to ask them to make this effort all over again (they started their run at 6.30am), something I wasn’t sure I could push my luck with. But then I reflected a little; the message about looking but not seeing, even when you think you are making the effort to see, is even more powerful. And there is an additional layer of romantic irony with the blind runner being the one who is now our guide; it is Mick, who despite his blindness undertakes incredible endeavours, who guides us and reminds us that our pursuits can always be noble and worthwhile irrespective of our (dis)ability.

 

Still Life with Apples (after Caravaggio)

I’ve never really been inspired by still life photography; it has always seemed just a little facile to me. Still life painting I completely understand and appreciate; the ability to conjure your hand to create strokes of paint on a canvass to perfectly recreate either the literal or the experiential verisimilitude of the scene is a skill far beyond my reckoning. And the joy of seeing the light fall on the canvass as if it were happening for real is such a wonder. But photographing that feels a bit like cheating. Every time I see the fabulous tableau creations done to show off the capabilities of an exotic new camera, I feel the talent is more in the set design than the execution of a photograph.

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But then the same is true of the type of portraiture I execute. Indeed, it’s true of any portrait. Come to think of it, the majority of talent in any photographer is in their ability to conjure the scene, whether that be by design (for example with the work of Greg Crewsdon), or by virtue of curation.

Yesterday my boys collected up all the windfall apples from our garden and with my mother, made stewed apples for use in pies and crumbles. The collection consisted of a lot of semi decayed examples and far more keepers than we needed. At the end of the exercise, there were a number of left-over apples in the kitchen, just lying on the work top in wonderful early morning light. They looked too good to ignore and so I thought why not try my hand at still life?    

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I am quite taken by the results (though really this is just a playful exercise) but if nothing else I have gained some insight into colour and light, particularly the importance of depth and texture and how to use shadow to create this in the scene.

Hemingway's Younger Brother

I’ve written before about how I think most B&W pictures would probably also work as colour but that the reverse is rarely also true. The inherent interest of an image will always remain regardless of the saturation, but B&W composition requires the interplay between light and dark to work in a way that isn’t always required for a colour composition to also be successful.

I love B&W, but I am more aware now than I’ve ever been that my talent, such as there is any, is for colour rather than monochrome photographer; I always find myself composing in colour and then deciding after the fact that a given image would perhaps work well, or even better in B&W. This is luck and serendipity rather than talent; I am certain that exceptional B&W photographers compose in monochrome and know how that composition will work as such before they take it.

For now, I am happy to see the world and the people in it in colour. I will always enjoy the serendipity of a good B&W composition, but I won’t try to maintain any pretence about being talented in this area!  

 Steve Bateman, A true 'Guern', fisherman, doorman, labourer, chef and all round character, photographed off Vazon beach, Guernsey

Steve Bateman, A true 'Guern', fisherman, doorman, labourer, chef and all round character, photographed off Vazon beach, Guernsey

Eulogy for my Father

In sitting down to right this eulogy, I have tried to think about the ways in which we might best collectively remember than man I called ‘dad’. I have so many personal memories of him. We had so much fun together and so much of who I am is his work but ultimately these memories are deeply personal and perhaps only mum, Alex and I would feel connected by them.
I will get to these memories in a moment. For now what we need is a shared memory by which we can all connect with the man that Alex and I called, dad, you called Jeff and my mum used to like calling ‘jeffery bobbles bom bom’.

What might that thing be, perhaps we could start with some well-loved catch phrases.

 Are you alright?  No I’m half left

How are you? Not three bad

 It’s been ages, how are you?  All the better for seeing you my dear

And of course who can forget

How do you feel dad?  I’ll let you know when I’ve recovered

How poignant that one now sounds. I guess not this time dad.

We might consider his little routines and obsessions. For example, no matter how many times we talked about turning off all the lights, making sure the TV wasn’t left in standby mode and that the front door was properly locked before we came to bed, dad would still insist on giving us a full run down of this routine whenever Alex or I would visit.

We could also rely entirely on things like shoes, keys and wallets not being where we left them. Dad would insist on moving these things to somewhere safe, from what they were at risk of always eluded us but it was always a fun to play, ‘where the bloody hell has dad put my keys and wallet now?’

Again it’s poignant and ironic to acknowledge that this creeping obsessive compulsive like behaviour was perhaps the earliest sign that something wasn’t right, as were the bad jokes, the punchline of which you could see coming from a good weeks before it was delivered.

But this is not what I remember him by. Those memories, though funny in some respects are also difficult. Better then to remember the man who made Alex and I who we are. Here are some of those memories.

I’m two years old. I’m wearing a dark blue parker jacket, tartan trousers (this was the 70s) and wellies. There are two buckets of soapy water next to a dark blue Volkswagen Beetle and apparently, we are supposed to move the water from the bucket and on to the car via a sponge in a broadly circular motion. But somehow, far more of the water has ended up on me rather than the car. This doesn’t seem to be a problem for dad, quite the opposite in fact, but mum isn’t seeing the funny side and seems to think that dad has failed somewhat in his fatherly duties. As I am inside getting changed, I think dad is cool.

Dad is teaching me how to use a camera. He’s explaining about shutter speeds and what aperture is and how the hole gets exactly twice as large as the numbers get not quite half as big. I’m only eight so this doesn’t really make any sense to me, but I am quite interested in his copies of Amateur Photographer as they have lots of nice pictures of women with boobies in them. I think dad is pretty awesome.

Alex and I are both dangling from ropes off the side of Windgather Rocks. We’re wearing hemp cloth britches made by mum, big angry red socks and walloping great walking boots and basically look like we’ve just stepped out of an L. S. Lowry painting, but we don’t care because how many other ten years olds get taken rock climbing by their dads?

It’s 9 O’clock in the evening. Dad, Alex and I are lying in a tent in a campsite in the Langdale Valley. Earlier that day Dad, Alex and I were perched high on the side of Pavey Ark having just climbed up Jakes Rake. Dad has taught us all the verses of The Manchester Rambler song and we’ve just had dinner of Cumberland Sausage and chips in the Old Dungeon Ghyll. Alex and I had Coca Cola because we are only ten and 12 but dad has had quite a few pints of his favourite beer ‘Jennings’ and is now telling us all about Eskimo Nell and how he would hitch hike up to the Lakes as a young man to go walking and climbing with his mates. Once they had a bbq in a cave high up on the side of one of the valleys; they’d spent all day hauling beer and food in rucksacks up to it. I think dad is basically god.

We’re still ten miles from home on the run back from the café stop at Crannage. I’ve got the bonk and we’re riding into a headwind across the Cheshire plain; my legs are dead and there’s nothing left in the tank. Dad’s hand is gently pressing on my lower back as he coaxes me home.

I’m sitting in mum’s car with everything I own packed into it. I’m 18 and about to leave home for the first (but not the last) time. I’m only going down the road to Altrincham to work in a bar during my year out so it really doesn’t occur to me that this might be something of a big deal to dad. Mum comes out of the house and looks at me. I give her a look that says ‘come on let’s get going’ but before I can voice this opinion mum tells me that dad is sat inside very upset because I’ve left without even saying goodbye. It then dawns on me that this is a big deal.

I get out of the car and give you a big hug and tell you goodbye dad.

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The Simplest of Spaces

Sometimes the light falls in the most simple or innocuous of spaces. You can spend a lot of time trying to set up your lights in a large studio space or spend a fortune renting out a Manhattan style loft with floor to ceiling windows and then by chance, while brushing your kids teeth in the family bathroom of your own home, you notice that the light coming in through the window in at 7pm of a summer evening is as good as it ever gets. Nature provides.

My two boys, though highly inquisitive and open to experience, are fortunately not old enough to question just why I am using the place they pee as a makeshift studio. They are unquestioning when I ask them to stand on a simple stool, placed in front of the round window and also in front of the toilet so that I can have the light fall just so on their faces.

Indeed, the session takes an interesting turn when my youngest decides it would be fun to see if he can aim down into the toilet from his elevated position. It doesn’t end well.

Fortunately, the portraits worked superbly. Perhaps we can try some more once I’ve cleaned the urine up off the floor.

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Touching Strangers

I first became aware of Richard Renaldi’s work through his long-term project ‘Touching Strangers’. I was struck by the sensitivity and poignancy of a particular image that showed an older black woman, holding the hand and touching the face of a much younger white man. The brilliance of the image isn’t just in the sensitivity and poignancy of the image but also in the fact that the two individuals in the portrait were unknown to each other before Renaldi made the portrait. I have often and wondered about the creative genius of the person who had not only been able to conceive of this portrait before its execution but had the empathy and sensitivity to make it happen, to be able persuade two individuals to engage with both him as a photographer and each other as subjects in a portrait.

Renaldi’s brilliance isn’t just in being able to persuade two random people to touch each other and be photographed while doing so, though I think that on its own would be a powerful and compelling commentary on today’s desperately neurotic and over protective society and worthy of our attention. More brilliant is the insight he brings in the selection process, the people he chooses and recruits to his work. Renaldi isn’t just making a beautiful portrait of two people, he’s offering commentary and insight into the human condition, dealing with issues of race, age, gender, sexuality and class. Simply framing two deeply contrasting individual together in a single composition, individuals whom you would otherwise not see as being ‘together’, would also result in a compelling portrait, but it would also run the risk of feeling confrontational. It would highlight the divisions that exist in society but that would be all. By having the strangers touching in some way, Renaldi offers us hope. He shows us something about our compassion and the ways in which rifts and divisions can be healed. It is what I have always liked to call ‘the humanity of the person in front of you’.

 From the project 'Touching Strangers' by Richard Renaldi. Reproduced here with permission from the arist. Copyright Richard Renaldi.

From the project 'Touching Strangers' by Richard Renaldi. Reproduced here with permission from the arist. Copyright Richard Renaldi.

This particular image is especially powerful and meaningful for me. It was posted in protest against to the terrible, but thankfully now repealed, American policy of separating immigrant children from their parents while their immigrantion status was processed. The whole premise of the Touching Strangers project lends itself so perfectly to this cause and this image is a powerful inditement of everything that was morally and humanistically wrong with the policy.  

But the image also made me think about the broader premise of how society 'separates' children from adults, particularly men, and sees them as a potential threat. I regularly photograph children, adolescents and young adults because these are the themes that, for deeply personal reasons, interest me and resonate most strongly. But I am always very wary of how society regards me as a middle age man photographing children. Indeed, on one occasion I have had to call the police in response to the accusations and threats being levelled at me as a result of my engaging with subjects. So this image, where Renaldi has arranged for a young boy to physically engage with a grown man, who is also a stranger, resonates very deeply for me.

I’m a father of two young boys and being their father defines me as a person, but society doesn’t define my success in the same way and indeed, regards me as a potential threat to children by the very nature of my age and gender. This image is incredibly powerful is so many ways and ‘touches’ me deeply.