Monday, July 29, 2013

The Wickerman Festival 2013

This year’s Wickerman Festival was slightly more eventful for me. It began with my band, Scruffy Buzzards, playing in the Main Acoustic Tent early on the Friday afternoon.

Actually, strictly speaking, it began when I dropped Rogan off late on Thursday afternoon (it's only 12 miles from here). As a performer, I was allowed a full weekend ticket for a guest. Camping equipment at the ready, a bunch of friends already there waiting for him, and his Mohawk fully primed (now 7 inches high), my son wasn’t about to let me hand it over to anyone else.

Rogan: Mohawk at the ready

I met up with him twice. The first was at the Scruffy Buzzards performance - he brought a few of his mates along and took some photos with my camera. The second was in front of the "hog roast" stall, which he visited so many times (he thinks it might be double figures), it reached a point where they greeted him with the phrase, "the usual, sir?"

Scruffy Buzzards playing in the Acoustic Tent; photo by Rogan

Apart from seeing a few other bands and musicians, I spent most of my time wandering through the crowds with my camera, attempting to improve my "street photography".

Photographing people as an observer, rather than directly interacting with them, as I do with portraiture, is an entirely different skill. It’s easy enough to shoot off a few snaps, but creating really captivating images is far harder. The "so what?" or "who cares?" factor is extraordinarily difficult to overcome. However, when done well, the photos can be outstanding.

Two of my favourite current photographers who have this skill honed to a fine art are Tatsuo Suzuki and Ricky Siegers (click on their names for examples of their work). They are light-years ahead of anything I can produce, but we can only improve if we practice, so most of my Wickerman Festival was spent practicing. I feel a bit like a kid learning the scale of C-major after having listened to Rachmaninov...

No matter which way you point your camera, there's probably something more interesting going on behind you...

Have a cigar

On Saturday evening, I bumped into Trevor Leat, one of the builders of the Wickerman (see previous posts), and he invited me to be up with him on the mound, as it was lit at midnight (the highlight of the festival). The 20,000 visitors to the festival are not allowed within about 60m of the willow sculpture, while the press and media photographers have an area only 5m further forward than the rest of the crowd. But I was right up there next to it. I’ve done this with him twice before and it is... awesome – I really can’t think of a different word.

This year, headlining act, Amy MacDonald, joined Trevor and Alex to set fire to their 40 foot high Minotaur. The design included using a different colour willow to give him a white stripe around the middle in honour of the local breed of cows, known as Galloway Belties, which have that distinct pattern.

Galloway Beltie Minotaur Wickerman

Amy MacDonald and Trevor setting it alight

We then retired to a distance of about 20 meters to enjoy the spectacle and the accompanying firework display.

Best seat in the house.

Burning Wickerman with firework display

Sunday morning I headed back out to pick up a rather dishevelled and sunburned Rogan

Dishevelled and very sunburned - you can see where he was wearing his sunglasses...

For a complete set of my Wickerman photos, please visit the albums on my Facebook page. You don’t have to be a member of Facebook to view them.



Saturday, July 20, 2013

Driving an Aston Martin V8 Vantage

"Happy Christmas!" said my wife, in the middle of July, on the hottest day of the year so far, as I was about to climb into an Aston Martin V8 Vantage.

Perhaps I should have worn a tuxedo, James Bond style...

No, we hadn't won the lottery, and she hadn't bought me the Aston Martin. And it wasn't Christmas either.

However, back in the cold short days and colder long nights of the festive period, my Christmas present from Maggie was a 3-lap drive in my fantasy car. I could have had a Ferrari or a Lamborghini, but she double-checked with my son who confirmed Aston Martins are the ones that make me go weak at the knees.

Also available

The company that runs these events does them in different places up and down the country, and this one was on the old airfield of Elvington just south of York. We tied it in with a summer holiday, renting a cottage in the Yorkshire Dales this past week, and headed over there on Thursday at the allotted time.

It didn’t get off to a great start when I turned up to register and discovered that although Maggie had paid for it, they do this sneaky little thing with the insurance. You are covered, but still liable for the first £2,000 worth of damage, should you have an accident. However, for an extra £20 you could get a waiver to cover it. If it had been the first £200, I wouldn’t have bothered, but £2,000 is a hell of a lot of money to find, however remote the risk. Bastards. I paid it, reluctantly.

When it came to the drive, though, it was fun, and confirmed my desire to get one if I ever become a fantastically successful photographer, or we win the lottery. The sense of acceleration and power, combined with style, luxury and comfort was intoxicating. Unfortunately it took until lap 3 for me to really feel I was starting to get the hang of driving the beast, and then it was all over. 5 laps would have been more satisfying. A year would have been better still…

A more desirable car than the Ferrari next to it, to my eyes

Also included in the package was a 3-lap passenger ride with an experienced racing driver, in an Ariel Atom. I’ve never been in anything with that amount of speed and acceleration (0-60mph in about 3 seconds) that didn’t have wings and a pilot. It was superbly enjoyable. I climbed out afterwards feeling light-headed, with a broad grin sculpted onto my face and my pupils reduced to the tiniest of pinpricks.

With no windscreen, you need some protection against hitting bugs at high speed...

Not entirely sure what to expect

I had no idea a car could go round corners so fast and not spin off

Grin sculpted onto my face

No matter how rich I might become, I don’t think I’d ever buy an Ariel Atom: I’d probably kill myself in it the first time I took it out.

I think it’s a sign of aging: 20 years ago I would have sold my grandmother to have a car like that. These days my sense of mortality is much stronger.

The Aston Martin, though...


Saturday, July 13, 2013

Maggie Craig, Bare-Arsed Banditti, and The Mad Hatter

"OK, That's the top hat and the polka dot material to make a floppy bow tie bought from eBay for a couple of quid. It's a good start!"

Sorting out a costume for Maggie Craig for the Authors as Characters project I was doing for Wigtown Book Festival turned out to be one of the easier tasks for me as she found, bought or made all of the pieces herself.

Maggie is a Scottish author who writes richly woven tales set in different periods of Scottish History. Last night I finished reading my signed copy of Bare-Arsed Banditti: The Men of The ’45, which is all about the Jacobite uprising of 1745 in Scotland.

It’s not a novel (although Maggie does write those too), but a detailed look at the lives of the people who took up arms in support of Bonnie Prince Charlie and his claim to the throne against the ruling George II.

Nor is it some dull academic historical text. Meticulously researched and beautifully written, not only does she overturn many of the popular assumptions (that it was purely the Scots against the English, or an entirely Catholic cause, for example), but it brings to life the very real people involved.

Much is taken from contemporary sources and first hand accounts, and what leaps out of the pages is the absolute humanness of those taking part. These are not tales of heroes and villains (although there some who display such characteristics), but of people like you and me. Some have strong convictions, some have no choice, and everyone experiences the same emotions we all do – fear, hope, love, anxiety. They all come across as people you know – your brother, your uncle, the lad you sat next to in school.

It’s been a wonderful read, and I know I now have to get hold of a copy of Damn' Rebel Bitches: The Women of the '45, which was written first - Bare-Arsed Banditti came after and is a companion piece, although you don’t have to read them in order.

On the day of the photo shoot itself, it was dull, wet and miserable. It took place in a disused shop and I added in the background afterwards. At the time I hadn’t read any of Maggie’s work, but in person she is as warm, intelligent and unpretentious as you would expect, with a knowing twinkle in her eye, and I think some of this comes out in the final photo.

Maggie Craig as The Mad Hatter

Monday, July 08, 2013

The "Ah" factor always wins

As a photographer, one of my aims is to continually stretch myself and improve on my knowledge, understanding and skill in creating images. This means not being content to keep repeating myself, but constantly looking for ways to produce better photos.

In the long term this has a positive effect on my ability – the photos I generate today are definitely of a higher standard and quality than they were in days gone by. And while there are still one or two images I crafted a few years back that I can still look at with a degree of satisfaction, the vast majority leave me wincing slightly as I know I would go about taking that photo in a completely different way now.

But that’s as it should be. Hopefully my best work will always be in the next photos I create – otherwise stagnation is inevitable.

However - and I’ve come to realise this is a problem for all photographers who are continually pushing their boundaries – this results in me looking for different things in a photograph than a non-photographer. What appeals to my eye, or not, is often completely out of kilter with the general public.

For most people, when they look at a photograph, primarily they are looking at the content. I, on the other hand, am also looking at the technical execution – how well is the image exposed, focused and composed, and whether these things are in keeping with the narrative being presented.

Additionally, I spend large amounts of my time immersed in the world of images – particular websites, magazines, and TV programmes or YouTube videos – which means I’m constantly looking for originality too. There are only so many photos of a lonely tree against a dramatic sky, or a long-exposure coastal shot at sunset (where the sea looks like milky mist rather than water), I can see before they fail to impress me anymore, no matter how much I might appreciate the technical expertise. I’ve seen it all before - hundreds of times.

So it constantly catches my by surprise when photos that are merely OK in my eyes, produce a far greater response than what I consider to be my best work. Indeed something little more than a snapshot has just generated more “likes” on Facebook than any other photo I’ve uploaded to date.

Less surprising is it features my daughter, Meg. We were out for a walk in the woods at the weekend, and about halfway round I balanced the camera on a rock, set the timer to 10 seconds and photographed the two of us in a typical Dad-hugs-daughter image. I took 4 shots. The first was overexposed as I’d forgotten to adjust the settings on the camera; the second didn’t have the right compositional balance; the third had Meg’s face mostly covered in my shadow. I made appropriate adjustments each time and the fourth image was fine.

Loving father and patient daughter

A pleasant wee shot I knew my wife would like, but in terms of photographic skill and expertise, hardly a Pulitzer Prize winner. Put up on Facebook, though, it gets four times as many “likes” as what I consider to be my finest work.

But then I’ve long known that blog posts featuring my daughter always generate a higher response rate than any other topic, especially if they include a photo of her.

Technical quality is unimportant. A photo of a loving father hugging his daughter presses all the right buttons - outdone only by pictures or videos of cute kittens.

Poorly focused, crap composition and lousy sound quality, but cute.
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