Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Transition to 50

I've heard it said that 50 is the new 40 these days. Then again, I've also heard it being said that 60 is the new 40. 40 must obviously be the old 40 and can now be completely disregarded.

However for me there might be some truth in it, in so far as I don't remember ever being so concerned about reaching a particular age before now.

40 really didn't bother me - it just felt like a smooth continuation rather than any kind of transition.

But 50?

50 has been looming.

50 has felt a bit too scary.

50 feels like it's come way too early - by at least 10 or 20 years.

Although it hasn't overly helped that the majority of people I know are already over 50 and so have no sympathy for me at all.

But this is the first time I've ever been worried about my own ageing process. Up until now, I've always seen birthdays as a celebration of life - a mark that I've survived another year whatever the gods have thrown at me.

Perhaps it's the strong whiff or mortality. The full realisation I definitely have less time left in front of me than I've already experienced. A sense of regret at things I haven't achieved that I thought I would have by this age. Fear of the idea that there are things I never will.

There's a flavour to the intensity that reminds me of how I felt in the time following the death of my mother, nearly 14 years ago. An increased urgency to the sense I need to find, or create, more meaning to my life.

And therein lies the the problem and the solution.

I've been coming at this with a victim mentality - turning 50 is something that is being forced on me whether I want it or not, and that feels brutal and unfair.

So the answer is to rewrite the narrative; retake control.

I need to embrace it, make it mine, and use that intensity to propel myself forward to make change happen, rather than drift aimlessly towards the grave.

On Friday I'm having a celebration with friends, food and music.

My 50s will be my best decade yet.

Me at 50 - taken this morning

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Do you really want your child to be happy?

"I just want my child to grow up happy!"

How often have you heard this phrase from parents, or used it yourself?

In fact, a study done by banking giant HSBC showed the vast majority of people list happiness as the biggest thing they want for their children, above being successful in their career or being healthy (unless you are in China, where health was the number 1 desire, or in India where a successful career was most important).

I raise this point because recently I've been hearing different debates surrounding the issue of Down's Syndrome. October is, after all, Down's Syndrome Awareness Month, so it's not too surprising. On a programme on Radio 4 last week (Moral Maze) they were discussing the notion of a world without DS - something that could become a reality. A new non-invasive prenatel test for DS is now available with 99% accuracy results. In the UK, over 90% of people who are tested terminate the pregnancy, and in Iceland 100% of DS pregnancies are now aborted.

Listening to medical professionals who advocate this line of action, their rationale was, more often than not, to prevent suffering. There's no doubt that having DS increases the chances of a whole range of physical and mental conditions - although none of these are exclusive to DS. One person referred to DS as a disease that needs to be erradicated. Occasionally a drain on resources was mentioned, but for most it was a quality of life issue.

But then I look at my daughter, Meg, who was born with DS.

We did have a tough time in her first year when she had to have open heart surgery to patch up some holes in her heart, and in her teens we discovered she had thyroid problems (which are now balanced by a daily dose of thyroxine), and that she has coeliac disease, making her gluten intolerant. Fortunately these days there are plenty of gluten free foods, ingredients and alternatives that make it a perfectly manageable condition. Indeed, Meg's home made gluten free chocolate brownies are by far and away the best brownies on the planet - infinitely superior to those that use flour in the making.

But the main point I want to make is Meg is actually the happiest person I know - by a long way. She finished school this year and is now at college 2 days a week. Another 2 days a week she spends as a trainee at a cafe called The Usual Place. And whenever she gets home from college or work, I ask her if she had a good day. Without fail, she always answers, "I had a really, really good day today!"

And she means it.

Meg loves people. Meg loves helping people. Meg loves having a laugh with people. College and work both give her plenty of opportunity for these things.

That's not to say Meg is never grumpy, ill tempered or upset, but she rarely stays that way for long. Meg's default is to smile, laugh and be happy.

And it's infectious.

Feedback we've consistently had over the years from different groups she had belonged to, is Meg always raises the mood, and everything runs more smoothly and in better spirits when she's about.

I want you to pause for a moment and reflect on that point.

This isn't just some poor disabled kid who chuckles to herself but is a drain on society. Meg actually has a positive effect on those around her. She brings out the better side of most people's nature.

When we are constantly bombarded with news of wars, terrorism and psychopathic presidential candidates and global leaders, then what we need more than ever is a reminder of the better side of humanity.

We need more people who make us smile, laugh, and bring out our better nature.

I don't know how much Meg's DS contributes to her positive outlook on life, but it would seem she's not alone. There are many tales of people with DS who have an emotional intelligence way above average.

An alternative narrative that challenges the idea people with DS are "less than" is they are just a different form of human.

And I'm one who advocates not just tolerance of difference, but the whole-hearted embracing of it. Difference creates the richness of life and affects how we can learn and develop - as individuals and as a species.

So what is this blog post about? Basically I was just struck by the contradictory facts that the vast majority of parents want, more than anything else, for their child to be happy, and yet, the vast majority of would-be parents would terminate a pregnancy of a foetus with DS, despite the potential for hitting the jackpot in the happy child stakes.

Meg and I were out for a walk in the woods at the weekend and we had fun as I took photos of her swinging her hair back in a stream of sunlight

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Man in the landscape

Allan Wright is a landscape photographer.

A real one.

My landscape photos are generally taken within 10 metres of where ever I've parked my car, at a time of day convenient to me. Allan, on the other hand, will camp overnight on a hilltop to be up at 4am in order to catch the rising sun hitting a distant mountain. It's a different level of commitment.

Needless to say his landscape photos are considerably better than mine.

But it's not just that he's prepared to get up earlier than me, and study weather patterns to understand when the lighting is going to be ideal, he also has a feel for it all. He immerses himself into his subject. He will walk for miles across heath and heather, cycle over moors and through valleys, and camp in remote places which few people other than the landowner and a few sheep are likely to know about.

Needless to say he's considerably fitter than me too.

I've heard it said 60 is the new 40. I hope so. With my 50th looming next month I'm beginning to experience all the symptoms of (yet another) mid-life crisis. But Allan kind of embodies the idea. Now into his 60s he reckons he's fitter than he's ever been, and this was demonstrated when he recently did a triathlon.

It began with a 1.5km swim - twice across Loch Ken and back - followed by a 40km cycle around Loch Ken, and topped off with a 10km run. Any one of those makes me feel exhausted just thinking about it, let alone doing all three consecutively. But not only did he complete it, he knocked half an hour off his previous best time.

Although I wasn't able to accompany him the entire journey, I did take some photos of Allan when he set off for the swim and as he cycled round Loch Ken.

Allan raised over £500 for Marie Curie Cancer Care in the process. If you'd like to contribute to his JustGiving page, follow this link - https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Allan-Wright3.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Earth - Body - Light

Earth - Body - Light is a book that evolved out of a chance conversation about collaboration with sculptor Lucianne Lassalle.

It's perhaps not quite as obvious a proposal as it might first seem. How do you create a collaborative project between a photographer and a sculptor?

If the photographer takes photos of the sculptural process, then it's just documentary photography. And if he takes images of the final pieces, it's just product photography. A collaboration has to be something more.

The answer was to introduce a third element to move us into a place neither of us had been before.

I met Lucianne through Dumfries and Galloway's art organisation, Spring Fling. There was a meet-the-artist opportunity at her studio, where she talked us through the processes of creating her amazing sculptures. Again and again I was struck by the life and energy in her works, as a whole new world of artistic endeavour opened up to me.

Ideas were bounced back and forth, sending each other links to interesting images and websites via email, and chatting via Skype. Eventually we decided we needed to experiment and play with a model - a third person we could use as a canvass who wouldn't mind being covered in the materials used by a sculptor and being photographed at the same time. Lucianne knew exactly who she wanted.

Night Pheonix (NP) had modelled for Lucianne on several occasions, and I had even sketched her a few times at the life drawing class I attend. She has experience, a grace to her movements and poses, and a comfortableness in her body that inspires confidence.

The vast majority of people I photograph are initially uncomfortable in front of the camera: "I hate having my photo taken" are often the first words spoken upon hearing my profession. Part of my job requires quickly building a relationship and relaxing the person I am photographing in order to get the best results. Although I hadn't photographed NP before, the fact we already met a few times and she wasn't frightened by the camera meant within a few clicks we were able to start immersing ourselves in the project.

We used Lucianne's local village hall as our studio. I brought lights, light modifiers, stands and a couple of different backdrops with me, while Lucianne had loaded her van with a variety of materials from chalk and slate dust to slip, clay and paint.

At this point, none of us had any idea how it was going to turn out. The intention was play and explore, and see what happened. It was quite likely nothing amazing would happen, but the hope was by trying out different things, new ideas might occur and open up possibilities to pursue at a later date.

At Lucianne's suggestion, NP began by rubbing chalk onto her face, upper body and over her hair. After a little bit of experimentation I settled on using a black backdrop with off-camera speedlites on either side of her, periodically adjusting angles and modifiers. This set up allowed the dust particles to show up in the photos.

I tethered my camera to my laptop computer so when I took a photo it immediately downloaded and appeared on the screen. This instantly gave me a much better sense of what was working and what wasn't.

NP moved her body, releasing chalk as she went, then Lucianne began throwing chalk and slate dust on to her while she adopted different poses.

Water was drizzled onto NP to see the effect it would have on the textures building up on her body, then she had more chalk and slate dust thrown at her. Lucianne started adding clay to NP, then slip, then more dust and eventually paint, which NP then smeared.

One of the exciting aspects of the photography was having little idea how the photo was going to look at the point I clicked. Standing there, observing with my eyes, I was just dealing with the ambient light of the village hall with most of the curtains closed. But the moment I took a photo it triggered the speedlites and I would get a burst of light from 2 different angles, illuminating the scene. For a fraction of a second shadows were cast, dust particles blazed and movement was frozen. Too fast for the eye to take in, so it wasn't until I looked at the screen I could see what I'd captured.

Photography is all about line, light and form, and this was continually changing in front of me. Sometimes I was directing it, other times I was letting it play out in front of me.

Over a couple of hours, layers of tone and texture were built up, mixed, partially removed, and added again, in a fascinating interaction between sculptor, model and photographer.

This all happened a little over 2 years ago, and despite ending up with a collection of quite amazing images, nothing had been done with them - until now. The three of us were reunited when I did a sculpture workshop with Lucianne earlier this year (see Sculpture Workshop with Lucianne Lassalle) and we got to talking about the project and the photos, and it was decided we should create a book of them.

So the three of us each wrote an introductory piece about the project from our own perspectives and decided which photos we would include. I then put it together using the software supplied by Blurb.com

If you would like to buy a copy, then you can follow this link - http://www.blurb.co.uk/b/7211419 - but if you would like to see a few more sample images from the book then take a look below:

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Earth's Crust Bakery

Tom and Pavlina started Earth's Crust Bakery out of their garage at the back of the garden. Their bread was quite simply amazing - much more like homemade, only tastier, and an entirely different beast to the pappy, aerated bread you get from the supermarkets. With a passion for natural ingredients, organic flour and baking as a lifestyle rather than a job, they were soon supplying local health food stores and delicatessens.

Then disaster struck - there was a fire in the garage and everything was lost.

Not ones to give up in the face of adversity, a Kickstarter project was set up to raise money for new equipment, and money could be donated in exchange for loaves for bread once they were up and running again.

A sign of their popularity in the local community was they hit their target in less than a week, and went on to raise a fair bit more besides. This allowed them to expand their options and earlier this year, they relocated to Castle Douglas, with space many times larger than the shed they had been operating out of.

Breads, pastries, focaccias, tarts, quiches, cheesecakes - soon their counter was heaving with a wide range of mouth-watering delights as they had the space to spread out and try new things.

During their fundraising period, I offered up my photography to help with profile raising, once they felt ready, and a few weeks ago we finally got round to arranging a date.

A Saturday afternoon was decided on, as there tended to be fewer customers about, and they wouldn't be busy preparing for the following day either. However, we did run the risk there might not be a lot of food left.

Careful arrangement of the remaining produce, plus a couple of friends called in to act as customers, and we were ready to go.

The natural lighting wasn't particularly good for the style of photo I had in mind, so I set up 2 lights at the front of the shop and one at the back. I wanted an impression of depth to the picture, to give an idea of the space. I also wanted the composition to have a slightly painterly feel, with that sense that you might be looking at a natural scene, but at the same time it's still been clearly arranged.

Ben was tasked with coming in through the back door with a bag of flour over his shoulder, while I wanted Jacqui to be doing something where a cloud of flour might appear. Different options were tried, from banging tins of flour on the table, to tossing handfuls into the air, but eventually pouring it seemed to work the best. Additionally, we discovered it worked much better with the back door open so the flour stood out against the black background - when the door was shut, there wasn't enough contrast against the grey door.

It was a fun afternoon, but one of the highlights was carrying away armfuls of leftovers once we'd finished and packed up. Muffled approval came from family members through mouthfuls of baked delights.

Feel free to click on the image for a larger version

Friday, August 19, 2016

Moniaive Manga

"Moniaive Comics Festival is coming up - it would be an ideal time to try out the Manga photo shoot," said Ralph, hairdresser and owner of Dumfries salon, Basement 20. It was an idea we'd discussed a while back - creating hairstyles and characters based on Japanese Manga - a very recognisable comic-book style of drawing and animation.

In a break with tradition, rather than keeping the behind-the-scenes video until the end of the post, I'll put it here near the top. Have a look, then scroll down for rest of the story.

Although this post is following the one about the Comlongon Castle photo shoot, the event took place about a a few weeks earlier, so this was the 2nd time I'd worked with Ralph, and the first time I'd worked with makeup artist, Jade Jamieson.

Our wonderful models with amazing hair and makeup

While there were no owls at this shoot, there were a lot more people involved.

Tim from the Craigendarroch Hotel provided us with a venue, and a steady supply of coffee and nibbles. Our 4 models were Katarina (who you might remember from the Photo Shoot at the Rural Mural), Jacob, Amy and Hayley, and each was given a different persona and style. Jody (also from the Rural Mural shoot) and James were also brought in to style hair, while Olly was on hand to assist as required.


The entire operation was open to the public who would stumble across us while wandering between other festival events. Although I tried to remain completely focused on my camera settings, the models and the lighting, every now and again I would become aware of small crowds building up, watching what was going on.


Moniaive Comic Festival organiser, Sue, also roped in 3 internationally renowned cartoonists - Jim Stewart, Robert Thomson and Stref (2 of whom also sketched the backdrops onto the reverse of a couple of rolls of wallpaper), who started sketching the models while I was photographing them.

Hayley interpreted by 3 different cartoonists

Samuel from Maklab in Dumfries was also invited along to scan the heads of the models and turn them into small busts using a 3D printer, adding an entirely different interpretation to them.

Amy - printed in 3D

Once the day was over and I was back at my computer going through all the photos, I had to decide how to process the images. The point you click the shutter on the camera is only one stage on the journey to the final image. The raw file is the equivalent to a first draft - now comes the editing, refining and honing it to fit the vision you have.


In the end I opted for 2 very different styles of post-processing. For the close up headshots I decided to emphasise the colours, making the most of the coloured gels I had used in the original lighting set up. But for the body shots I went instead for blue-sepia tones, which gave them a much more illustrated feel.


Photo shoots like this are not that common, and I wanted some kind of record of the event. So I dragged my friend, fellow photographer Allan Wright along to film the whole thing. But I was also rewarded with the lovely bonus that Katarina brought her camera along and set up some time lapse sequences, which I was then able to incorporate into the video.

I wanted a rocking soundtrack to go along with the video, and initially I thought I would use another track from my band, The Cracked Man. However, when I talked to Marcus, he'd just been doing a recording session with a talented young lass who performs under the name KLEO, and played me her track, "Anger Within Me". It seemed to work perfectly. I spoke to KLEO and in exchange for a photo shoot she was more than happy for me to use her music on the video.


Looking at the photos, the cartoons and the 3D busts, Ralph and I felt it would be a shame for it to just end there, so the idea came up to have an exhibition. We went out to see Matt Baker at The Stove in Dumfries to discuss the idea, and he loved the whole collaboration aspect of the project and was happy for us to exhibit there.


Last night we had the preview evening, and the exhibition runs for the next two weeks, until 1st September - do pop along if you can and let me know what you think.

I am aware that many readers of this blog live just a bit too far away to make it along - several have an ocean or two in the way - so if you'd like to see the complete collection of photos, please click through to this album on my Facebook page:


Tuesday, August 09, 2016

Comlongon Castle, Robyn Stapleton, and an Owl...

Comlongon Castle is an original 15th Century Scottish Keep, with a Baronial hotel attached to it.

Primarily used as a wedding venue (it's the nearest Castle wedding venue to Gretna), the owner, Phill Ptolomy, was telling me he wanted to promote the romantic getaway side of it too, so we started bouncing ideas about.

It should probably be in the Great Hall, which has a huge stone fireplace. Perhaps if we had a woman in a red dress - Scottish looking - red hair, pale skin etc - standing in front. Oh, and candles - there are these large candle stands available. We could probably have a sword in the background too - the place is full of suits of armour. What about an owl? An owl? Yes, the Cumberland Bird of Prey Centre have a trained owl that can swoop down the aisle and deliver the rings to the best man. Wow, OK, let's get an owl then. Who can we find to be our model? I know the perfect person - I've photographed her before...

And so last month I found myself in a castle photographing singer Robyn Stapleton wearing a red satin dress with an owl on her arm in front of a large stone fireplace.

When I did the shoot for Morag Macpherson Textiles a couple of months back (see Photo Shoot at the Rural Mural) I worked with Ralph from Basement 20 Hair Salon in Dumfries. He and his team did an amazing job, and we got on really well, so he was my first port of call for this shoot. We also managed to secure the services of the wonderful Jade Jamieson as our make up artist.

With such a great combination of location and people I wanted it recorded, so I dragged out my friend, the poet David Mark Williams with me, thrust my other camera in his hand, and asked him if he could video it for me.

I was delighted with some of the footage he managed to capture, and then it occurred to me it would look pretty cool if I had an aerial drone shot of the outside of the castle as an intro and a possibly title sequence to bookend the video. I knew just the man to ask - Andy Jardine of Digital Services Pro, who I knew had created exactly that kind of shot before. When I asked him he said he'd recently bought a new drone which was a much better, and he insisted on shooting some fresh footage for me to use.

All I needed was a soundtrack, and Robyn was happy for me to use "The Lads That Were Reared Amang Heather" - the last song on her debut album, Fickle Fortune.

I hope you enjoy this wee behind-the-scenes video - I think it gives a good flavour of what it was like at the photo shoot.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Coming Soon...

Manga, Owls, and attempted product placement by a hairdresser...

Things have been busy of late, and I'm aware the blog is in danger of being frequented less often. A few times blog posts have slipped from being weekly to fortnightly, and if I'm not careful might end up monthly.

This week, then, I thought I'd do a teaser post - as taste of things to come. There have been a couple of wonderful projects I've been invovled in, but won't be see seeing the light of day for a few more weeks.

First of all - Moniaive Manga

Collaborating with Ralph Yates-Lee of Basement 20 Hair Salon, and makeup artist, Jade Jamieson, early last month I was involved in shoot inspired by Japanese Manga/anime with models being made up into characters. This all took place at Moniaive Comic Festival. So not only was I creating photos, but 3 cartoonists were also sketching them, and 3D prints were being made of their heads.

An exhibition of the photos, sketches and 3D busts will be on display at The Stove in Dumfries during the 2nd half of August, with a preview on Thursday 18th. You are, of course, very welcome to attend - it would be lovely to see you.

Having fun creating a poster that looks like a comic cover

A couple of weeks ago I was out at Comlongon Castle, again with Ralph and Jade, only this time we were photographing singer, Robyn Stapleton (who those with a good memory might recall I did the photo for her debut album, Fickle Fortune last year).

Ralph and Jade sort out hair and makeup on Robyn

This time we were in a 14th century keep, with a large fire, lots of candles and an owl.

"Willow" is from the Cumberland Bird of Prey Centre. You can also hire her to swoop down the aisle and deliver the rings to the best man

My friend Mark was shooting some footage for me, so I'm hoping in the next few weeks to be able to show you a little behind-the-scenes video.

Ralph recently got on board with Unite hair products, which he now uses in the salon. On a couple of occasions I saw him surreptitiously trying to ensure they could be seen in the video and photos...

Ralph's subtlety is legendary

More on both these shoots coming soon...