Sunday, April 30, 2017

Unconditional Love

Had she not died from a rare cancer of the ear (who knew such things existed?), my mother would have turned 80 today. Perhaps something else would have got her, but her father lived to his mid 80s and her mother into her late 90s. Certainly we all thought she probably go on to be a 100 or more, and possibly out live us all.

So it was more than a little shock when she died at the age of 65, less than a year on from her diagnosis.

People who have not been through the loss of someone close tend to assume you’ll grieve for a while, then get over it. But the truth is you never do.

You shatter into a million fragments and then spend the next few years trying to gather them up and stick them back together again. Inevitably some bits are missing, or damaged beyond repair, so you fill the gaps with other bits, and slowly you recreate a version of yourself that is able to live in the world without the loved one.

To the outside world you may even appear to be the same person you were before. But you’re not, and you never will be.

This isn’t to say that after 14 years and a couple of months I don’t go days, or even weeks without thinking about my mother, but periodically it whallops me deep in my chest and for a few moments the pain is as excrutiating as the day I lost her.

Sometimes it’s triggered by something one of the children have achieved, and I think of how proud she would have been, and how sad it is she isn’t around to experience it. Other times, like today, it can be a particular date. I completed a Sudoku puzzle over a cup of tea after my breakfast and scribbled the date in the margin (I don’t really know why I do this, but I always have). And as I wrote out 30/04/17 I remembered today was her birthday, and then realised she would have been 80. And the tears welled up.

What I have learned to do on these occasions is give her a hug, hold her tight and remember her love for me.

A mother’s love is unlike any other – it is completely unconditional. I could have murdered someone and, while she would have been deeply saddened and upset, she would still have loved me.

That complete, total, unconditional love that is there whenever we want it, is something we don’t fully appreciate until it’s gone. Like the air we breathe, until we experience its absence we don’t truly understand just how vital it is to our being.

My daughter, Meg, is away today with the café she works part time with, who are providing catering for an event a few miles the other side of Dumfries, so I won’t see her until tonight.

But when she does come home I will steal a cuddle from my amazing daughter who still gives herself to my hugs with total commitment. No matter how bad I feel about myself or the world, in her eyes I can do no wrong. From Meg I also get complete unconditional love, and I know I am an extraordinarily fortunate man.

My mum

Tuesday, April 04, 2017

Soul Soup – Everyday Superheroes

"There are two kinds of people in this world: those who have mental health problems, and those who are in denial."

I've been quoting this one for years, but I can't remember where I first heard it. Even a google search hasn't helped. Perhaps I made it up. Where ever it comes from, it's always had a deep ring of truth to me.

Mental health is still something of a taboo for many people, so it doesn't get talked about, much less admitted to. Fear of rejection, of appearing weak, or even of employers using it as an excuse to get rid of us, all contribute to so many people staying quiet, and ending up feeling completely on their own with it.

By the time you hit 50, the chances are you've probably found coping mechanisms, perhaps even solutions. But when you're young and all your friends and peers seem to have brilliant lives – as promoted on Facebook and other social media – then the feelings of isolation can be overwhelming. The fear of facing and trying to deal with the emotional turmoil on your own can lead to suicide looking like the only way to end the suffering.

Soul Soup is an amazing local charity offering professional counselling and support for young people (12 to 25 years old) facing emotional distress and difficulties with their mental health and wellbeing.

Having had an on-off relationship with Depression since I was 18, when I was asked if I would help create a photo for them to use to launch a publicity drive to raise awareness about mental health, I didn't hesitate.

"Everyday Superheroes" is tied in around the notion that nearly all of us attempt to appear invulnerable and easily able to cope with the world, so the idea is to get people to photograph themselves as superheroes doing everyday things – be it shopping, gardening, washing the dishes etc – and share it on social media.

To kick-start the drive, though, we created a photo of people dressed as superheroes in a group therapy session: even Superheroes are vulnerable to mental health problems.

The concept and the costumes were all created by a group of Soul Soup workers and users.

Recalling the Moniave Manga project I did last summer with Ralph Yates-Lee of Basement 20 Hair Salon, I asked him if he’d like to be involved too. Ralph leapt at the chance, brought along an assistant, Angelique, and sorted out hairstyles for several of the participants.

As well as the main image, I needed to create a series of photos of each of the characters in proper Superhero poses to Photoshop into posters placed on the walls behind them.

A couple of people whipped out their mobile phones to record some of the process of getting hair done and the photo shoot itself, so with a soundtrack from my band, The Cracked Man, I edited together this short (1:10) video to give you a taste of the day.

Feel free to "like" and support Soul Soup over on Facebook if you're there.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Dr Megaphone

Dear Kim

I'd like to have an interesting headshot for professional purposes and I'd like to get a non-boring portrait of my ten year old son.

Would these be things you could do?

I love emails like this!

We met up for hot chocolate to discuss what non-boring might look like, and during the discussion it turned out Dr Ian Johnston also has a touring show of science, music and entertainment, along with his son, Sandy, and local musican and songwriter, Alan McClure. So a publicity shot for “Dr Megaphone” would also be required.

Ideas were bounced around and we settled on the concept of the three of them standing at a table with various bits of science equipment on it, possibly with smoke or bubbles coming out of jars.

Shortly before the shoot, another email exchange:

IAN: I have just ordered 20kg of dry ice which will arrive with me on Friday and add eerie mysticism to our get-together on Saturday.

ME: I hope you know how to use it - I never have…

IAN: How hard can it be? I used to use liquid nitrogen in work, by the gallon. Dry ice is warm!

I also invited make-up artist, Jade Jamieson, who worked with me on the Manga and Comlongon Castle shoots last year. She set about applying a blackened face look on Sandy to imply he’d been exposed to explosive experiments.

It was a lot of fun. Bottles were filled with water and food colouring and then a few seconds before each shot, cubes of dry ice were poured into them, with an extra large scoop into a cauldron of water up on the shelf behind them to add an extra bit of atmosphere.

Once the photos were edited, I alerted Andrea Thompson of Dumfries and Galloway Life magazine, who then arranged an interview which has now appeared in the April edition:

It's shoots like this when I'm reminded why I decided to become a photographer.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Northumbrian Stars

I was hoping to get some big night sky shots. I wasn’t expecting the Northern Lights.

Maggie and I had a rare 4 whole nights away on our own. So rare, in fact, we realised it we hadn’t had that much time together on our own since before our kids were born - so 22 years, more or less.

A favourite area for us to visit is the Northumbrian coast, over on the far North East of England. It’s a little over 3 hours’ drive, so far enough to feel like we’re away from home, but not so far we would lose too much of the break to driving.

This time, Maggie had found us a wee flat in Seahouses, a couple of miles down the road from the landscape-dominating Bamburgh Castle, where the beaches run unbroken for 2 or 3 miles, and the tides go out quite far, leaving this huge expanse of sky and sand.

The flat was only 50m from the beach, so we went for walks along it every day, sometimes twice. One evening the tide was quite far in and as the sun was setting, the last rays were hitting the tips of the waves.

We were also blessed with blue skies and sunshine, which also meant plenty of stars at night, punctuated at regular intervals by the lighthouses on the Farne Islands.

On our 3rd night I went down to the beach with the camera. I hadn’t brought a tripod, so rested it on a plastic sandwich box to keep it off the wet sand. In the dark of the night I needed 20 to 30 second exposures to be able to record anything.

I was aware of a barely perceptible glow on the horizon, but just assumed it might be lights from oil rigs reflecting off thin clouds, but to my amazement, as I looked in the back of the camera, there was the unmistakable green and purple colouring of the aurora borealis. I then noticed it was not only in the sky, but reflecting off the wet sand too!

With frozen fingertips, I spent the next hour or so firing off images, in the hope of catching something that would show up and look vaguely interesting.

These were my best shots. The lights on the right are the lighthouses of the Farne Islands, and you can see the milky way too.

When I could take the cold no more, I returned to the flat like an excited puppy, desperate to look at the images and show Maggie.

Aware the faint glow visible to the human eye was still on the horizon, I put the lights out in the flat and Maggie and I spent several minutes looking out the window as the glow occasionally got brighter, or had patches moving within it.

The colours in the images above are only there because the camera was allowing up to half a minute for the light to hit the sensor. Here’s what it looked like to us out of the window.

Of course it was nothing like the brightly glowing streaks you see on TV or in photos taken by people up nearer the polar regions, but it was exciting for us who have never really seen it “live” before.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Coast to Home

A little over a year ago, I was involved in creating some publicity photos for the Castle Douglas High School Enterprise Group (see A Mad Hatter’s Tea Party). Each year, the final year pupils have the chance to design and create products, which they then have to market and sell to raise money for charity.

A year on and I was asked back to help with the next group. This time they were creating pieces of art made from pebbles, shells, bits of driftwood and anything else they could find on the tideline, and they called their group, Coast to Home.

Ideas were discussed and they decided it would be fun to have a home-like setting, but on the beach, with a handful of them sitting on a sofa with a coffee table. One of the team said he could get hold of an old sofa and it wouldn’t matter if it got a bit mucky. In the end he also brought a coffee table and a standard lamp.

With the permission of the owners, we did the shoot down at Cardoness Beach, on a cold, damp, grey day. At one point it started raining and I was fearful as to whether we’d be able to complete it. However, amazingly the rain stopped again and held off long enough for us to do the shoot.

We started off several metres up the beach. As the light was really dull, I had another one of the team holding an off camera flash to one side, so I could get a bit of shadow and definition into the photo. I also placed another flash inside the standard lamp, which made it look like it was plugged in, and gave an extra glow of light on those underneath it.

Once I was happy we had a shot we could use, I then asked if it was really OK if the sofa could risk being trashed. It was confirmed it was not a problem, so we moved the whole set right down to the water’s edge. As the tide was coming in, it then washed around the sofa and the people on it.

Initially there were plenty of screams as the cold sea hit the feet of the teenagers, but kudos to them all, they managed to do several shots with smiley faces as the freezing water lapped around them.

Here are a few behind-the-scenes shots:

And rather wonderfully, Dumfries and Galloway Life magazine chose to use our photo for the front cover of their March issue

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Meg turns 19 and donates her hair to charity

If my daughter turning 18 last year was a shock to the system, Meg turning 19 today feels no less surprising.

In one way, her Down’s Syndrome contributes to a sense of her being younger and more naive in the world, but then I suspect it’s probably more to do with me being a Dad. Perhaps on some level it’s difficult for any father to truly grasp his daughter is not the wee lass he used to bounce on his knee.

But then in some ways Meg is light years ahead of the rest of us. Her compassion and desire to help others knows few limits. And this was exemplified at the weekend when she had her hair cut short so the lengths could be donated to charity.

A few months ago, Meg had discovered an organisation called Little Princess Trust that provides real-hair wigs free of charge, to boys and girls throughout the UK & Ireland who have lost their own hair through cancer treatment. Since then she’s been determined to donate her own hair once it had grown long enough.

To talk of parental pride would be an understatement. This idea came purely from her – no suggestions, nudging or cajoling coming from anyone else. Meg just thought this would be a wonderful thing to do.

And it really is.

Sadly, her parents weren’t as organised and it only occurred to us on the day that perhaps this was a fundraising opportunity for the charity, so I quickly fired off a couple of before-and-after pics.

However, better late than never, so we’ve set up a JustGiving page where you can donate a few quid in support if you wish:

Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Stealing My Soul...

"Are you in Dumfries for the wet-plate photography?"

"What? Where?"

"Up at the old Baker’s Oven, by WH Smiths. It’s part of the D-LUX festival."

*Insert image of cup and saucer hovering in mid air as photographer has shot out of the café and raced up the road in a whirlwind of excitement...*

Taking over an empty shop for the week, Concursum – a group of of three alternative photography practitioners and artists – had set up lights, old cameras and portable darkrooms and were creating portraits of the general public using the Collodion process – one of the earliest forms of photography.

It requires coating a piece of glass with the right solution, adding silver nitrate, placing it into the camera, exposing the shot for around 4 seconds and then developing it straight away.

Everything has to happen within about 10 minutes from start to finish, before the coatings dry and render the process useless.

Here’s a short video I found online which gives a flavour of how it’s done

Wet Plate for fstoppers from LeClair Photo + Video on Vimeo.

I got chatting with Laura Peters, a portrait and wedding photographer who has a complete fascination with it, and was one of the three practitioners. We instantly clicked as we started talking about our love of portraiture, and if wasn’t for the fact there were other people waiting, and I had a limited amount of time before I had to get home, I think we would have blethered non-stop for hours, if not days.

Initially I hadn’t intended to get my photo taken as I didn’t really have the time, but as I started to find out about it, I couldn’t resist. The rest of the afternoon would just have to be delayed.

Laura wonderfully talked me through the process, took my photo and then – the best part of all – allowed me to watch the "fixing" process, where the portrait emerges on the glass plate.

It was really quite magical.

I am completely a photographer of the digital age. I can take up to 11 photos a second if I want, using a hand-held camera designed for speed, accuracy and portability, and Photoshop is my darkroom.

This, on the other hand, is a process from more than 150 years ago. It is slow, cumbersome and completely unforgiving. One tiny error and you have to start the whole thing all over again.

I wouldn’t have the patience to do it myself, but then this allowed me to just be a punter for the first time since I became a photographer. Because I’m a professional photographer, if someone else takes my photo, I’m always analysing and comparing and thinking what I might do differently.

But with this, the process was so alien, all I could do was sit back, follow instructions and trust the photographer.

Here’s a copy of the final image.

My first thought was how much I looked like my Dad.

I think because the image immediately looks very old - even though as I write this it’s only 2 weeks since it was taken - it creates a kind of dissociation. It surely can’t really be me – so I cast around in my mind for who else it might be, and my father’s face is the next most similar to my own.

If you ever get the chance to have a go, you really must. It is a magical process and thoroughly worth that little bit of your soul it captures...

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Exhibition at The Whitehouse Gallery

About 18 months ago, I had the opportunity to do a series of photos with Alexandra – a retired professional ballet dancer.

At 66 years old she still had the toning and suppleness of someone decades her junior. Here was a chance to capture the beauty and elegance of the human form, which was not about youth, but maturity and experience.

Setting up a black background, I placed a single light behind and to one side of Alexandra as she glided through a series of poses and movements. As the burst of the flash was too fast for the human eye to register what was being caught, I tethered the camera to a laptop computer so I could see the results of each click.

After the session I converted the images to black and white, and darkened down the shadows until just the highlights remained, creating images where the light, line and form were all now minimised and accentuated. The lines flow, the graceful body is partially visible and the mind fills in the missing details.

I ended up with a series of amazing images that took my breath away, but I’ve never quite known what to do with them. They don’t fit into any of the usual categories for marketing and promoting my business, so they’ve pretty much just sat on my computer apart from occasionally putting one into an online photo competition.

However, recently the Galloway Photographic Collective – a group of professional photographers I belong to – were asked to put together an exhibition for The Whitehouse Gallery in Kirkcudbright.

Photography is not usually something they sell, but from Feb 4th to March 4th, they have turned over the entire ground floor to displaying images from the Collective.

We were asked to produce photos that ideally hadn’t been seen before and had more of an art feel to them.

I realised I finally had the opportunity to show off these images of Alexandra.

I have printed 5 of them up at A1 size – about 60cm x 84cm – and on block mounts. Modesty thrown out the window, I have to say they look stunning, and I’m really looking forward to seeing them all together on the walls of the gallery.

If you can make it along to Kirkcudbright this Saturday at 11am, there will be drinks and nibbles and various members of the Collective, including me, on hand to chat about our work.

It would be lovely to see you if you can.