Porto was a real surprise. Nothing had prepared me for how beautiful the city was. My timing was fortunate for I came into town in the late afternoon and caught a magnificent sunset. The train station was antique, painted blue tile; encased in the blemish of anti-pigeon gauze. The hotel was unexpectedly deco and chic, the locale was cramped but stately. The streets were grubby, but jammed with interesting angles. I checked in, showered quickly and left in a hurry to catch the sinking sun. I reckoned there were two more hours of light.
I walked down through the once squalid and fishy Ribeira district, now much restored and heritage listed. The steep cascade of tall facades slid like dirty ice to the banks of the Douro. I shot the buildings and people and stood watching the old barcos rabelos bobbing up and down before the long, terracotta-roofed warehouses across the water.
I was waiting by the water, looking up to the grand iron arch of Ponte Luis I, shooting the bridge when it struck me that I should be shooting from the bridge. Photographically, it was one of the best calls I ever made. When I reached the top of the bridge and saw the angles such a steep perch afforded, the shadows and silhouettes cut in ink and silver, I was knocked for six.
This is one of my very favourite photos, one that I simply must look at from time to time to remind myself why I like taking photographs. It was an extraordinarily lucky shoot, and this shot perhaps my luckiest. The sandstone platform by the river anchored all the shots I took. On account of its slope and my position, it obtained a slightly odd, almost geometrically impossible place in the photographs. The combination of sunshine and wet footprints was also an unexpected bonus. I have to confess to being very fond of shooting directly into sunlight in black and white. Silhouettes make excellent subjects, but it’s rare that they offer up as much drama as they did on this occasion. Apart from the fact that they were fit, young shirtless men wrestling each other in the sunshine, that they happened to be beside a gleaming river into which they were also attempting to throw each other, made it all the more picturesque.
This was, in fact, one of the last photographs I took in this sequence. I had not had time to download the photos from earlier in the day onto my laptop, and shortly after this shot, I ran out of space on my camera. I desperately tried to delete a few things, but I was very reluctant to do so and rued not having brought my laptop with me on this shoot, as I almost invariably did on all others. I ran to the hotel, but by the time I made it back to the top of the bridge, the sun had set behind the headland and no longer shone down the length of the river. I had, all the same, managed to get close to 100 shots. It still pains me to think that I could have taken 500 had I unloaded that drive.
Shortly afterwards, I began to write a poem about the shoot, but it wasn’t especially grand. Still, I’ve included its first two, rather unpolished stanzas here, as it will otherwise reside in the discard pile.
Boiling water, sea of ink and silver,
children of mercury. The gods, it seems,
have made a little scene
of prancing shades, wrestling,
lithe, supreme beneath
the press of sunset’s heavy
gold. In the uplift of glare,
each snap a minted coin
of martial art
children clamber dripping light and dark.
Footprints sink like fluid into gauze;
stains, a moment, patch the heated stone.
They shift, through lucent silver,
back to chrome. In the outdoor rooms of shadow
lies detail, safe beneath
this city’s grand
distraction. Late afternoon
dissolves in bronze the promenade,
the simmering river, bromides
and black figures…
Here’s a shot I had taken earlier. And yes, it is indeed the source of the banner.
A fuller gallery of shots from Spain and Portugal can be found here: