Tuesday, June 28, 2011

External Brain

In many ways I have given up trying to store too much information in my own head, and have started using the world and other people as a kind of external hard-drive.

My personal ability to cope with processing new input has reduced considerably over the past few years with the CFS/ME. It’s not just my body that becomes tired if I start using it excessively; it’s my brain too.

Information Overload has become a real problem. Faced with too many things I have to remember or deal with, my system crashes and I cease to be able to function properly. I become very tired and emotionally fragile.

I’ve even found, when watching a documentary, science or nature programme on TV in the evening, that the more interesting and fascinating I find it, the quicker my eyes get heavy and I start drifting off.

One coping strategy I’ve been developing in more recent times has been making instant decisions on whether a new piece of information is relevant or not. And if it isn’t, quite simply I don’t attempt to store it.

You can chat to me about your new puppy’s toilet habits, your child’s exam results, or even some life-changing event you are about to embark upon, but if I decide in that instant that this is not life-changingly important to me, then I won’t dwell on it or attempt to remember. The chances are you could tell me the same thing next week, word for word, and I won’t realise.

It’s not that I don’t care – I would love to be able to store and recall the conversation for the next time we meet - it’s simply that I’m having to learn to prioritise as a survival method. Otherwise it becomes a bit like that scene in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, where the computer on the spaceship isn’t taking evasive action to avoid the missiles hurtling towards it, because it’s too busy trying to work out how to synthesize a cup of tea for the Earthman on board.

If I deem it is important, then I will write it down in a notebook I usually have in my jacket pocket. This isn’t a completely reliable method as I frequently forget to look at my notebook - when I get home and step through the front door, I will take off my jacket and hang it up, thereby rendering it and its contents no longer relevant to my thoughts.

It’s not uncommon, while waiting for someone or something, I will root out my notebook and start looking through it. Often I will find things I have no memory of writing whatsoever, or things that are now irrelevant, because the time when I should have dealt with it has long gone – a bit like finding expired money-off coupons at the back of the kitchen drawer.

But I also use other people’s brains for storage and retrieval. When in conversation with someone who asks me if I can do something for them, I tell them they will need to email me to remind me. When I am at the computer, I always check my email, so if a reminder is there on the screen in front of me, I am far more likely to deal with it.

Again, this is not the most reliable of systems. Partly this is because my inbox can fill up quite quickly and stuff not already dealt with gets pushed further down the page and forgotten about. I often need reminding more than once.

However, I’ve also come to realise that I’m not alone with this problem. It seems many people have difficulties remembering to do what they said they would - including those who promised to email me.

Businesses are developing technology all the time to make money from our inability to order our memories. These days most people carry a phone on them that is also a notebook, a directory, an appointment diary and an alarm clock. And if they lose their phone, the behave like they have lost half their brain and no longer appear to be able to function clearly.

I’m beginning to think my problem is just a slightly more acute version of something nearly everyone has. The big difference is I’m admitting to it.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Midsummer Music Festival 2011

I was invited along to the Midsummer Music Festival in the nearby town of Gatehouse of Fleet to take photos of the bands performing last weekend.

In the studio, I can interact with the sitter, ask them to move this way or that, adjust the lighting and alter the background. But when it comes to musicians on stage, I have no control over any of these things. They move about, the lighting is often poor and constantly changing, the background usually interferes rather than compliments, and when there are more than one of them on stage, they tend to either spread out – leaving huge uninteresting spaces between them – or obscure each other with bits of instruments or entire bodies.

Performance photography, then, is about as far removed from portraiture as you can get while still pointing the camera at people.

In fact it was at the Midsummer Music Festival this time last year, when at I first tried out photographing musicians on stage and discovered these difficulties. Since then I have photographed The Sex Pistols Experience and Cash From Chaos playing live, but I’m hardly a pro in this department.

Still, I have learned a few tricks over the past year. For example, taking photos from closer to the side of the stage will help bunch up spread out musicians. If you move about a bit and use a zoom lens, sometimes you can isolate the head of a singer against a less busy part of the background. And when the lighting is poor you can compensate by increasing the ISO setting on the camera. Unfortunately, this has a side effect of making the photos “noisy”. However, if you drop them into black and white and play with the contrast levels afterwards, the photos can take on a “grainy” quality, reminiscent of old music-press photos, which add mood and atmosphere.

For me, then, it seemed a reasonable exchange. I get a free pass to the event and the chance to develop my skills in this area, and the organisers get some free photos for publicity if I manage to get anything halfway decent.

I had also been asked if I could supply the local paper with any halfway decent photos for post-publicity purposes, which, if they took, would also get my name spread a little further. And while this seemed like a great idea at the time, it ended up interfering with my photography.*

For the first 2 bands on the Friday night – The Ideal Crash and Sweet Relief - I was thinking about camera angles and shots that might make a reasonable newspaper image – nothing too fancy, just something that reports what’s going on.

It was about half way through the third band – a superb group called The Inflictors – that I stopped thinking about the newspaper and started thinking about what kind of images I would like to see. And then everything changed. I started enjoying myself much more, I tuned into the rhythm and movements of the musicians so I could start to predict where they were going to be by the time I clicked the camera, and the quality of the photos improved.

By the time I was onto the 4th act, John Otway, I was in my element and I shot some of my favourite performance photos to date.

The following night I started warming up with the first guy on, Dave Sutherland; I got into my stride with Quirkus and carried that through with The Geese (now a 5 piece band – they were only a 3 piece outfit when I photographed them for their CD cover last year), again, producing photos I was dead chuffed with. However, by the time King Creosote came on stage, my CFS tapped me on the shoulder to remind me it was there and my energy deserted me. I took a few photos, but my heart was no longer in it and I had to leave before the end to ensure I could make the 15-mile drive home in safety.

Below are a handful of my favourites from the evening, but you can find the full set of 50 or so images on my Facebook or Flickr pages.

As usual, click on any of the images for larger versions.

Cameron of The Inflictors

The Inflictors

John Otway with his 2-headed guitar

John Otway

Nicola of Quirkus

Blue of Quirkus

Michelle and Richard of The Geese

Links of interest:

The complete set on

The Bands
Friday line up
The Ideal Crash
Sweet Relief
The Inflictors
John Otway

Saturday line up
Dave Sutherland
The Geese
King Creosote

* and it turned out the newspaper weren’t interested in the photos I submitted after all, because they were all black and white and the paper prefers colour images

Thursday, June 16, 2011

He's 16 today!

Many, many years ago, thinking it would be rather cool to create a one-of-a-kind birthday card using Photoshop, I had no idea I was actually setting a precedent.

Now, many, many years later, if I was to give a child of mine a bought card on their birthday, then they would feel slightly less than special.

Among other things, to date, Rogan has appeared with Teletubbies and Bob the Builder, in Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean, as well as being portrayed as Wolverine, Dr Who and James Bond.

This year was more of a struggle than usual. I did have an idea for putting him into the movie, Kick Ass, as the lead character had bouncing curly hair, not dissimilar to Rogan's. But then he went and got his hair cut.

After a failed attempt at trying to slot him in with the cast of Friends, last night I had a moment of inspiration and managed to include him in another of his favourite TV series, Family Guy.

Fortunately it was greeted with a smile this morning.

Happy Birthday Rogan!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

How funny?

It's not "offensive" humor that bothers me, it's spite and malevolence that I'm against. Humor is a bit like sex: it's fun when it takes place between two consenting adults but if one party has power over the other, or one party is under the age of consent or simply not capable of consent than the sexual conduct becomes rape. Making fun of someone who has power over you is bold and edgy, but there is nothing courageous, edgy or iconoclastic about mocking someone with less power or authority.
Erika, from The Flight of Our Hummingbird

It's very rare for me to put together a blog post just to suggest to anyone that they should go straight over and read a blog post on another site, but in this case I felt compelled.

Erika writes with extraordinary clarity and precision about why saying, "but it's just a joke" is no excuse for laughing at people less able to defend themselves.

It also reminds me of a superb routine by the comedian, Stewart Lee, about another comedian, Russell Howard (a young, hip, cool comedian in the UK, known for his appearances on a TV show called "Mock The Week"). For more on that, follow this link - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HElBqek9Ybc.

You only need to watch the first 2 minutes 36 seconds to get the point. Stewart Lee is not for everyone. His comedy routines are often deconstructing and undermining comedy routines - not only of other comedians, but of himself, while he's doing it. He makes me laugh hysterically, but I'm aware that most struggle with him, so don't feel obliged to watch any further than 2 minutes 36 seconds.

Meanwhile, if you've ever struggled with why some jokes make you laugh and some just make you feel uncomfortable, then pop over to Erika's for one of the best pieces of writing I've read on the topic


Thursday, June 09, 2011

Mambo Jambo

Regular followers of this blog will know I’ve been involved in photographing performers each month for “The Mill Sessions” – a mostly acoustic venue at The Mill on the Fleet, in Gatehouse – a town about 15 miles from here (see Mill Sessions Posts).

The last gig was by a charismatic, fun, talented couple who go by the name Mambo Jambo. Unfortunately, it was also on the Saturday evening of the Spring Fling weekend, so I was unable to attend the gig.

Normally the performers are asked to turn up an hour early so I can have time to chat with them, get them to relax with me and get some shots of them for the “Hall of Fame” The Mill is looking to develop. But with me tied up photographing visitors to my studio all weekend, the only solution was to bring them to me.

So mutual friend, Alan McClure (singer in The Geese, who I did the CD Cover shots for), bundled them into his car and drove them to Castle Douglas. They patiently waited their turn then I had about 3 minutes to rattle off a series of shots in the hope that I could get something halfway decent before those in the queue behind them would start getting bored and wander off.

I would love to have had longer with them. There is a wonderfully light and playful quality to them and I know a photo shoot of an hour or more would be a great deal of fun.

However, I managed to get a shot which fitted on the wall of the weekend open studio event, and I think is probably passable for the Hall of Fame shot too.

Now to date I’ve been keeping the shots in black and white as a kind of “house style.” Taking the colour out of a photo often means we fill the gap with mood and atmosphere. And when looking at the image with the pinkish-purple background I was using, the colour didn’t work so well. But after a sudden burst of brain activity, I turned the background blue and it seemed to lift the whole image, and I now suspect the colour version has more impact than the black and white.

What do you think?

As usual, click on the images for larger versions

The Mill on the Fleet: http://www.millonthefleet.co.uk/
Mambo Jambo: http://www.mambojambo.org/

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Facing The Weekend

Photo taken by Rogan

Over the next day or two I will start taking down the 130 or so photos stuck to the walls of my studio from last weekend's Spring Fling Open Studio event (see previous couple of posts).

It was a success on every level I can think of - in terms of response, feedback and keeping up my energy levels. Before I began, I thought perhaps I might be able to photograph 80 people over the 3 days. Secretly I hoped for a hundred. As I closed the door late on Monday afternoon, I had photographed over 170.

Amazingly, more than half of all the visitors who walked through the door agreed to take part. And the feedback and enthusiasm I received was wonderful.

This is what the first ones faced as they entered my studio (click on any of the images for larger versions):

1 - PHOTOS - not wanting the first visitors to face a completely empty wall, I figured having a few photos up first might help encourage people to take part. This included one my daughter, Meg; two of my son, Rogan - before and after his dramatic haircut; one of me, taken by Rogan, and 4 photos of friends who helped me 2 days before when I decided to dry-run the system - Graham, Danny, Mark and Ken. Andrew also helped, but the printer started playing up so I didn't get a photo of him up until later.

2 - REFLECTOR - the back of the reflector used to bounce a softer light on to the other side of the face - see below for more details.

3 - COMPUTER - bridging the photo between camera and printer, allowing me to convert the image to black and white and email a copy to anyone who wanted it.

4 - CHAIR - in order to minimise energy expenditure, I spent most of the weekend sitting down.

5 - OLD PRINTER - ready as back-up in case the new one failed. After all the hassle I'd had with it on the dry-run, when I discovered the new printer would only use the black ink cartridge if I lied to it, I thought it was wise to have one in reserve. Fortunately I didn't need it.

6 - STACK OF BLACK INK CARTRIDGES - I had no idea how many I would need. In the end, I only used about half the number I bought.

7 - OLD LAPTOP - used for displaying a slideshow of photos. However, it became clear quite quickly that no one was bothering with it - partly because it was too low down to see, but as there was no room anywhere to put it at a higher level, we didn't use it on Sunday or Monday.

8 - STEPLADDER - used as a seat for my assistant (my wonderful friend Mark, until about 3.30pm on Saturday, and Rogan the rest of the weekend), or for sticking the photos on the higher parts of the wall.

9 - CUPBOARD - stuffed full of miscellany not intended for display, so hidden behind the assistant/stepladder.

10 - TABLE WITH FORMS - so I could use the photos of the people, I had a Model Release Form for each of them to sign. It's a legal grey area, so this covered my butt. It also allowed people to leave their email address if they wanted more information about the book I'm going to create (see further down the page).

11 - VISITOR COMMENTS BOOK - and a bowl of sweets to encourage people to leave nice comments. However, only 16 visitors left a comment in it, and one of those was my daughter.


Those who got their photograph taken would sit in the chair with their body facing the window, which acted as the main light source, then they would turn their head back to me and look into the camera. The textured backdrop worked as a background more interesting than white and not as ink-heavy to print as black. The reflector cast a softer light on the other side of their face, lifting it out of the shadows.

This set up allowed me to be at the right height to photograph them while sitting in my chair, and it removed the need for lights, which would have taken up more room and run the risk of getting knocked over, or bulbs burning out.

It was all about trying to keep things as simple as possible.

Below are a couple of photos of the studio after the weekend, with all the photos on the walls.

The exhibition was intereactive and grew as the weekend progressed. At 5.30pm on Monday, it was all over. However, this is not the end.

Over the next few weeks, I'll be putting all the images into a book called "Facing The Weekend", which I'll be publishing on Blurb.com for anyone who's interested. More on that when it's complete.