6928 Vita in St Peters

St Peter’s, Vatican, October 3, 2013

By way of a very loose narrative thread, Number 47 finds us still in Rome, albeit, Vatican City. On the subject of narrative, I recently found myself teaching the “Kuleshov Effect”, more broadly known as montage, wherein narrative is constructed by the viewers themselves as suggested by the sequence of shots. I have never set out to construct any story through the sequence of my Favourite Shots, yet it used to be a favourite pastime of mine to watch random slideshows of photos from throughout my life and find threads in them. Often a story would present itself in a run of places, characters and moods that reordered history into new possibilities.

This shot was taken inside St Peter’s early on a weekday morning. It was the most enjoyable visit to St Peters I’ve ever had – the building had not impressed me in the past, largely because of its rather dull grey and gold interior. Obviously St Peter’s is opulent and elaborately decadent, yet it is also vast and cavernous and the abiding atmosphere has a greyness about it that seems to mute the place and make the frills seem out of proportion. On this visit, however, sun was streaming through a floating interior haze and the towering ceiling had an epic refinement, the beauty of something natural. At ground level it felt intimidating in places, yet looking up, it’s grandeur became apparent.

This shot was taken as we slowly drifted to the exit, feeling more content than expected. Perhaps it was the pleasant surprise of the place, or its soaring elevation, but V carries herself with a light floatiness, like the dust-motes in the warm air.

Having an almost ten-month old baby means we don’t get out very much. Sure, there are plenty of outings, visits and excursions, mostly revolving around family, but not many evenings on which it’s possible to go out to dinner, to the cinema, or anything for that matter. We could certainly be more proactive in this regard, organizing Nana, Granny-ma or some equally benign soul to take care of Magnus, yet much of the time we’re both too exhausted to do anything anyway. The one regular exception, however, is taking the Tardis to Asia.

2120 Tardis doors

The Tardis…

Every Saturday night, unless some other occasion gets in the way, we drive to Chinatown and head upstairs at the Sussex Centre for what is universally accepted as the best laksa in Sydney – at the Happy Chef. This hole-in-the-wall in a food court seems an unlikely place to find something so magnificent, yet the Happy Chef has long been favoured by laksa aficionados and ranks in the top ten Asian eateries in Sydney on Urban Spoon (now languishing under the appalling name of Zomato) – and that’s saying something, considering how much incredible Asian food one can find in Sydney – alongside, it must be said, a lot of mediocrity. I recommend the vegetable and bean curd laksa, with small egg noodles and extra spicy beef and barbecued pork – but you can customise to your fancy.

Laksa 20150328_191002

Happy Chef Laksa – the finest

The great thing about Happy Chef being in a food court is that we can take Magnus along and not feel too conspicuous should he cry or moan, on account of the place being full of people and, indeed, other children. Magnus, being the good sport that he is, rarely cries or moans on these occasions and, with the handy high-chairs, we can feed him while we eat. As it is difficult to find a park in the city on Saturday evening, though by no means impossible, and surprisingly cheap, we always park downstairs in the car-park and take the elevator up to the food court on level 1. It is at this point that we “take the Tardis to Asia.”

2126 Closing doors

Goodbye carpark

Consider this from a baby’s perspective. One minute we are in an underground car-park, dimly fluorescent, with low concrete ceilings, cars and stanchions all round. We approach a pair of sliding doors and press a button. The doors open, allowing us into a small, enclosed space with mirrored walls. Another button press and a faint, almost indistinct sense of motion occurs. A moment later, the doors slide open and – amazing! – the outside world has changed utterly. From a car park in Sydney, we are in an Asian food court full of exotic smells and mostly local Chinese people. It must be baffling, to say the least.

2137 Arrival in Asia

Hello Asia!

Of course, Magnus is far too young to make much of this at all. Without even words to put names to things, or grammar and syntax to string narratives together, he’s not in much of a position to explore this phenomenon with any real sophistication. I wonder whether he can even deduce that we have travelled upwards – he may have a better grasp of motion than I give him credit for, yet it’s a pretty smooth ride in the Tardis. So, really, his fascination is, as much as anything else, an imaginary affectation of his father. Yet I do like to think that he does at least find it curious – he certainly looks curious on emerging from the lift. Again, as with so many things that Magnus experiences and I experience vicariously through him, I long for that moment when he begins to ask me questions; when his clear fascination and curiosity are framed in that most human of cultural phenomena – words.

The dictionary defines the noun Beyond as follows – “The unknown, especially in references to life after death.” Unconvinced by such flawed notions as “the soul” or any form of life after death, the beyond has always held for me a rather different meaning, more akin to its usage in the expression “the back of beyond” – a very remote or inaccessible place. The word also conjures connotations of the noun “yonder”, simply meaning, the far distance, to which place my mind often drifts.

This series of images has been a slow accumulation, gathered over several months and then some. It all feels rather late, far beyond any of the personal deadlines I tried to avoid setting. Without the chance to go on more frequent, dedicated shoots, I’m still picking up whatever I can when and wherever I can, which is dictated by the fact that we have a baby. This rather limits the subject matter, since my adventures have mostly been to regular haunts, without much variation, or else, to the internal, escapist beyond, where cameras cannot go.

Of all the things I miss most, it is vanishing into the far distant and deracinating bewilderment of too long spent in a strange and foreign place. And yet, despite the longing to go to the Beyond, to be lost somewhere and find a hotel, any hotel, at least I have a reason for living now, featured in the last shot, which is a pretty key thing if you know, as I do, that nothing lies beyond this life at all but the lives of others.

9957 Parrot attack

8101 Couple, Tamarama

1006 Staircase

1103 Redfern runner

1073 Elevated

1067 Sunlit chair

9850 Surfer getting ready 2

8001 Man

1032 Reaching out 3

0978 Car

0381 Open window 2

0392 Mid stride 2

0338 Mid stride

0633 Mural, Newtown

1194 Young skater, Glebe Point

1995 What infinity looks like

1220 Cityscape 2

8083 Man with baby

1249 Vita with bubble

1229 Coffee

All too rare – the silky cappuccino

Australia is now hailed as having one of the world’s most developed and sophisticated coffee cultures, and not without good reason. Australia benefitted hugely in the post-Second World War period from a huge influx of migrants from Europe, among them, many thousands of Italians, who set up cafés right around the country and introduced European coffee culture. From this, slowly but surely, an appreciation of coffee and a skilful artistry in roasting, preparing and serving it has grown, something which would never have occurred had Australia remained an Anglo-Celtic monoculture. It took a long time, and there were many mishaps along the way, but here, now, in the 21st century, Australia is truly a coffee powerhouse, exporting both its artistry and coffee styles to the world.

Yet, whilst very excellent coffee, very well made can be found with relative ease, it’s not that uncommon still to stumble upon a pissweak, milky latte, a bitter flat white, or a foamy, not silky, cappuccino. To make a somewhat random comparison, the quality of Australian coffee is certainly up there with that of Rome, yet its consistency is lacking. During eight different visits to Rome over the years, including living there for four months in 2003, I don’t ever recall being disappointed by the quality of Roman coffee. Being a bit of a “milkdrinker”, I always tended to order either macchiato or cappuccino, which is roughly on a par with what I drink in Australia and so makes a good comparison. In Australia I drink macchiato or latté, but the latter is roughly the equivalent of the Roman cappuccino, which is far creamier on top and blended more evenly into the subsurface ocean of coffee, rather than floating on top like a rough, spongy scum, which is sadly, all too often my experience of Australian cappuccinos. It’s probably worth considering that, according to my mother, in the 1950s, she and her peers referred to a cappuccino as a “frothy coffee”. Perhaps the newly arrived Italian migrants thought Australians would drink their coffee if it looked more like beer, which an Australian cappuccino can often resemble. And, yeah, I get the whole chocolate on top thing, but it seems a bit of a clumsy ruse in all honesty. Is this the reason why we are really a nation of flat white drinkers? Because the cappuccinos aren’t actually that great, and the flat white is, in fact, more akin to the Roman cappuccino – a superior and silkier coffee.

Whilst nations overseas are now embracing the Australian flat white, it is for me, the Australian latté which deserves the most praise. Done properly, it can be a masterpiece – creamy on top and smoothly potent underneath, yet with the transition from the surface being soft and never too abrupt, hot or bitter. The elements should be both in juxtaposition and harmony, which, texturally, to put it into gelato terms, feels more like the slide between hazelnut and dark chocolate than say, going from lemon to fudge. It is not heavy, but light. It begins like dessert, but ends refreshingly.

Until recently I felt quite confident that I could get a great latté most places I went in Australia. Yet, lately, there have been whispers of discontent with the latté. I myself have suffered the indignity of such offenses as boiled milk; a pissweak and milky blend; frothy rather than creamy surface; low-fat milk when it wasn’t asked for (the difference, texturally and taste-wise is vast); and overly hot, thin coffee. On a recent visit to Brisbane, despite buying coffee on five different occasions, in five different locations, not one of them got the latté right. It was a disastrous mix of over-milky, watery, overheated second-rate gruel, and not the whole porridge once. I mean, the coffee was drinkable, and I drank it, but I never really enjoyed it, which is surely just as important, if not more so, than satisfying the chronic caffeine dependency which drives most of the developed world’s economies and societies. I just hope that Australian coffee hasn’t already peaked, and a decline set in, born of our seemingly innate complacency. Please, for all our sakes, don’t let it slide.

Sweeping Nuns, Rome, October 3, 2013

Sweeping Nuns, Rome, October 3, 2013


Sticking with the theme of nuns, this seemed an appropriate complement and contrast with the last-posted Favourite Shot, wherein nuns could be seen enjoying themselves and wielding pizza. In this image, taken along the Lungotevere Gianicolense in Rome on the way to the Vatican around 0740 AM in the morning, rather than kicking back, these nuns are al lavoro. I’m not entirely sure in what capacity they are working; perhaps there was a religious institution of some sort in the immediate vicinity, or are they an order who contributes to the cleaning of the streets more broadly? Perhaps someone can tell me. At the time, we were marching very rapidly in order to get in line for the Vatican Museums, famed for their length and the duration of the wait, and so I didn’t pause any longer than to take this shot.

Cleric-watching, including taking an interest in clerical artefacts and ritual, can be one of the more mild diversions when in Rome. As might be expected, there are various shops which specialise in items for the clergy ranging from the luxuriously opulent to the most austere. The sight of things such as beautifully crafted ceremonial items for giving mass on the fly, stylishly arrayed in velvet-lined, chic suitcases, is a curious reminder of the degree to which religion is a kind of craft. The stores specialising in underwear considered appropriate for nuns and priests can be très drôle for the unsuspecting tourist.

Incidentally, it’s my birthday today, and, as is traditional these days in our society, I thought I should draw attention to that fact. It’s also my first birthday as a father. I’m not entirely sure whether this makes much of a difference, but it is true that having a child draws a clear dividing line in life of the before and after. Perhaps, therefore, an image of people doing chores is an appropriate choice for this birthday.

6049 Sunlit man with nuns (with pizza)

Nuns with Pizza, Broadway, Sydney, November 2, 2011

Nuns with pizza, enjoying themselves, say no more. This was one of those fortunate moments when one is thankful for all the time (and energy) spent carrying a heavy camera around. I’ve probably said something along these lines before, and would hardly be the first person to say it, but one of the things that makes photography so enjoyable is when everyday life offers up a scene with artistic potential that is entirely random and neither planned nor expected. I’ve often doubted my ability to create compositions, in a studio, for example, and tend to be more reactive than proactive when it comes to taking shots. This can be as frustrating as it is pleasing, for often there is nothing worth shooting in real life, or a scene which might be worth shooting is too poorly lit or interrupted by something – usually a car. Have I mentioned how much I hate cars? The bane of urban photography.

Yet, even worse than failing to capture a scene that was fleetingly there for the taking, is not having a camera with which to shoot it. Sure, one likely always has a mobile phone as back up, but no matter how much phone manufacturers bang on about their cameras, the lenses simply aren’t good enough and suffer tragically when attempting to zoom. Surely I’m not the only person who finds the photos presently advertised as “Shot on iPhone 6”, a little underwhelming. They’re nice landscapes for the most part, which pretty much any camera could capture adequately. Just as one might struggle to take a bad photo of say, Anne Hathaway. Having said that, I don’t mean it pretentiously, or to deny that people do take amazing photos with phones. It’s simply that given the choice between a phone and an SLR, surely no one in their right mind would choose the phone.

This photo was just another case of being in the right place at the right time, with a camera. I’ve always found it mildly ironic that the man is the one lit by the afternoon sun, and not the nuns, who seem to be, somewhat contrary to their supposedly sober nature, having a very good time. This was shot on Broadway, Sydney, on a late spring afternoon.


This collection of photos was first included as a gallery at the end of a short story I published in October 2012: Hot and Bothered, which is a largely autobiographical story fictionalised with my favourite literary “avatar”, Dirk. The photos, however, seemed to be languishing in a not especially well-presented gallery, so I decided they deserved more prominence. A couple of these shots have already been published in my Favourite Shots collection, but they belong with the others and so are republished here.

The short story, Hot and Bothered, pretty well sums up my experience of Varanasi. I arrived there tired and somewhat melancholy, having just left the beautiful mountains of Darjeeling. Varanasi was fascinating and engaging, yet it felt too crowded, hot and dusty, so I retreated inside myself and just focussed on taking photographs in relatively short outings. I was very happy with some of the photos and will always remember Varanasi as something that goes above and beyond the rather mediocre mood I brought with me.




Rickshaw traffic, Varanasi

Varanasi train station

Varanasi washerman

Ganpati Guest House, Monkey deterrent

Rickshaw traffic, Varanasi


Sleeping man, Varanasi


Rickshaw traffic, Varanasi


Rickshaw traffic, Varanasi


Varanasi muscle-man




Band - Varanasi

Varanasi - the goat-keepers

Dudes Inc.


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