Archive for February, 2014

5527 Dresden

Dresden, July 5, 2006

This photo was taken in downtown Dresden, in the newer part of the city on the train station side of the river. It was a warm and sunny day in Saxony and the scene around the public fountains was either ecstatic play as with these chaps, or chilled sunbaking on the benches flanking the long, rectangular water features. I was on my way back to England after five days spent in Prague, having done what I so often did – booked a Ryan Air ticket into one place and out another – in this case, flying out of Altenburg. This was just a pit-stop in Dresden to have a quick look around, before getting on a train to Leipzig. Indeed, it was this very day on which I coined one of my favourite travelling caveats – “Remember Leipzig.”

Why remember Leipzig? Because I arrived there at 1800 that evening, with the expectation that finding a hotel, as with anywhere in Europe, would be a doddle. It was not. I walked around town for four and a half hours, although not all of this time was dedicated to finding a hotel, it was also a quest to find an ATM I could use. It wasn’t so much that the hotels were too pricey or didn’t have rooms, but rather, there only seemed to be about three in town, and this problem was exacerbated by the fact that Germany was, at that very time, hosting the World Cup.

I did finally find a hotel at around 2030, after walking a considerable distance from the centre, but they didn’t take credit cards, completely messed up the exchange rate when I offered pounds, and wouldn’t let me check in until I paid cash. Therefore, I had to spend the next two hours trying to find an ATM, which involved walking all the way back into town twice – since every ATM in the area seemed only to work with German bankcards. Not much of a soccer enthusiast, I had however, been looking forward to having a few drinks that evening and watching the Portugal v. France semi final, but this was not to be. By the time I got some money and into my hotel room, it was already 2230 and the game was nearly finished. That, however, didn’t stop me from drinking all night with some 60s acid-casualty Californian whose name was officially One Zero Six Nine, whom I met at a bar whilst catching the last few moments of the football.

Remember Leipzig! Don’t ever arrive anywhere without either plenty of cash in your pocket, a reservation, a guidebook or a reliable recommendation. You’d think you can just wing it in Europe, but not always. As to this photograph, I loved the mischievous look of fun on the young bloke’s face as he stands poised to kick or throw the ball. I’ve never been sure whether or not he saw me taking the shot, and whether or not it’s the camera he’s looking at here. I think, however, that he is just looking at his mate with a sense of cheeky anticipation. On a rather random tangent, he’s always reminded me of a happy version of Cameron from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

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Hoi An, Vietnam, June 29, 2009

Hoi An, Vietnam, June 29, 2009

There are many clichés in photography and they are particularly common in travel photography. This is somewhat inevitable considering how countries and cultures are stereotyped in iconic images which are designed to quickly inform the responder of the cultural context and subject matter. Travel guides and brochures make the most of these established clichés, many of which are exotic, paradisiacal or evocatively rustic, to entice people into visiting the places they present. Whilst familiarity can breed contempt and I generally prefer less obvious compositions, I can certainly appreciate a good cliché for having captured the scene so well.

Aspiring to achieve a successful cliché is actually a useful motivator for developing photographers. Whilst people should rightly be encouraged to try to do something “original”, whatever that means, being able to shoot a good cliché – just like those in the travel brochures, for example – is an excellent way to build confidence. Imitation is a form of flattery, certainly, but it is definitely flattering to be able to produce a shot that is roughly the equal of those you seek to emulate.

It is for this reason that I have always felt pleased with this shot. It is a cliché, yes, but it is also a sort of iconic image, immediately recognisable as a symbol of east Asia, and, more particularly, Vietnam. It was taken in 2009 in Hoi An, Vietnam, on what was probably the hottest evening of my life. It was a had been a very hot day – around 38 degrees and highly humid – and the temperature did not seem to drop as evening came on. In the centre of this gorgeous, heavily French colonial influenced town, the still air was so stuffy that even at ten o’clock that night, four hours after sunset, I became so hot I felt sure I would faint. I had to sit down on the pavement for almost twenty minutes to try to avoid the effects of heat exhaustion, which mugged me in a way I’ve never experienced. Fortunately, the temperature dropped somewhat after midnight and things became more bearable.

This did not, however, spoil my appreciation of Hoi An. The historic centre is a low-rise showcase of quaint architecture and fairy-lit streets, lovely to wander around aimlessly. It is also famous as a city of tailors, and if you want something made – a dress, a pair of trousers, a waist-coat – they can usually have it ready for you the following morning at embarrassingly low costs. The quality varies of course and the only real way to be sure is to get a reliable recommendation, or to examine closely the clothes they have on display in their shops.

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Different Pace of Life - Pitt Street Mall, Sydney, October 9, 2011

Different Pace of Life – Pitt Street Mall, Sydney, October 9, 2011

It’s been a while since I hung around Pitt Street Mall in Sydney looking for shots – largely because I have already spent a lot of time doing so and feel a bit tired with the subject. This shot, however, should serve to remind me that the real importance of Pitt Street Mall is not the aesthetic but the crowd it draws. As the de facto shopping heart of Sydney’s CBD, and the only really significant public square in the centre between Hyde Park and DarlingHarbour, it is always crowded with a wide variety of people and entertainments. Perhaps too mainstream for my tastes, so far as its offerings are concerned, I still enjoy the Mall’s rich opportunities for people watching.

What I like about this shot, apart from the obvious juxtaposition of the two main subjects, is the various ways in which they are juxtaposed. The slumped figure of the homeless man faces in entirely the opposite direction, while the slack position of the legs forms a far less dynamic triangle than those sharply presented as forward arrows in the legs of the striding workers. The pointed heels of the central female subject, coupled with the mild blurring of her figure, only adds to the pace of her stride – an absolute opposite of the man’s inertia. That she is young, shapely and neatly attired, whilst the homeless man is elderly and haggard, reminds us of the objectively mythical but all too real connection between beauty and success.

The dog has always offered some hope for me in this image – that he is watchful and alert, equipped with the energy the homeless man lacks, still loyal and fiercely so. It would be tough without a dog and I just hope this bloke got a roof over his head eventually.

Whilst I did like this photo after taking it and posted it under the title Different Pace of Life, it wasn’t until my friend Kylie told me how much she liked it that I felt completely confident about it. It is a little overexposed and the light seems harsh and unsubtle, but ultimately I suppose that’s an appropriate texture for what might be termed social realism.

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Ajanta Caves, India, January 14, 2013

Ajanta Caves, India, January 14, 2013

These young blokes, like so many in India, were itching to have their photo taken and to take a photo of me. It can get a bit much at time, just how often one is asked for “just one photo, sir!”, but of course, it’s done in the nicest spirit and in the hope of making a connection, however briefly. I do wonder what the purpose is – like collecting westerners! – but then I think, hang on, am I not collecting Indians, so to speak? What I do love is that I mostly enjoy taking portrait photos, especially candid ones, but always feel somewhat guilty about pointing my camera at strangers. These guys made it so easy.

This shot is taken at the Ajanta Caves, a series of 31 rock-cut Buddhist cave temples and monuments in Maharashtra, India. The caves were carved out of a rock-face between the 2nd century BC and, roughly, the 5th to 7th centuries AD in two distinct phases. The location in itself is a sight to behold; a horseshoe-shaped valley, the handiwork of the Waghora River, curved around a high, central rocky outcrop, that rises sheer from the valley like an acropolis. The caves are accessed by walking along an at-times narrow path carved mid-way up the cliff face, which can be very crowded and difficult to move along.

The caves contain, according to the Archaeological Survey of India, “the finest surviving examples of India art, particularly painting.” They are not exaggerating. Whole temples, complete with all the architectural features of free-standing structures, have been shaped inside the dark and comfortingly cool interiors. The paintings, in the form of frescoes and murals, are difficult to see in the dim, protective light, but well worth the effort of squinting. They are mostly elaborate depictions of the Jataka tales, a large body of stories that tell of the previous lives of the Buddha. Smaller, and ultimately more intimate than the larger caves at Ellora, the Ajanta caves might be difficult to get to, but they are a true archaeological, artistic, logistical and geographical wonder and not to be missed on a visit to India.

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Chong Kneas Floating Village, Cambodia, June 26, 2009

Chong Kneas Floating Village, Cambodia, June 26, 2009

Chong Kneas Floating Village lies along a stretch of river feeding into Lake Tonle Sap, the largest freshwater lake in South East Asia. It’s an extraordinary, but rather confronting place to visit, being on the one hand so mesmerising and curious, and on the other, dreadfully poor. The people largely subsist through fishing and farming and make extra money where possible from tourism – taking people on boat rides up and down the river, which usually terminate at the entrance to the lake itself.

The village is mostly built of floating, moored house-boats, tied to stakes which allow them to rise and fall with the seasonal swelling and shrinking of the river. The variation in height throughout the year can be considerable;  indeed, I was told that during certain times of year, when the river is too low to fish in, the boats move further out into the lake itself, where a network of much deeper mooring poles can be seen.

The people of Chong Knea seem almost saddeningly used to having their photos taken by curious visitors. They mostly get on with their lives and pay little attention to the passing voyeurs; sitting on their floating porches, mending nets, cleaning tools, fixing boats, doing their washing, brushing their hair, or just chilling and smoking cigarettes. The sound of televisions could often be heard coming from within, and it seemed that much of the time there was little work to do. Some eager and enterprising locals will ride alongside the boat offering soft-drinks, snacks and bottles of water. On three occasions, seemingly out of nowhere, a young boy boarded our boat with an icebox full of drinks. The child in this photograph, like so many around Chong Knea, was swimming about like an eel, a complete natural in the water. Everything revolves around the river and lake.

It’s worth mentioning the negative press Chong Knea has on Trip Advisor, which I found both astonishing and disappointingly petty. Yes, you will be overcharged for a tour and boat ride, but if you want to squabble about spending twenty US dollars to see something as unique as this, then you should stay at home. Yes, people will encourage you to buy books and pens for the school, and yes, they might not be completely honest about where this money is going – but does it really matter considering how poor everyone is here? And anyway, you can always say no. I’ve felt guilty ever since visiting this place because I tipped our boat drivers so little money, thinking they would be receiving a wage for their efforts from the twenty-dollar entry fee. They actually get nothing at all from that fee, something I found out much later to my shame – so don’t make the same mistake and make sure you tip them generously.

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Venice, near Rialto Bridge, March 8, 2007

Venice, near Rialto Bridge, March 8, 2007

Purely and simply, I love the spontaneous drama of this shot. It has accidental classical connotations with the expression being derived from the choice of mask – tragic or comic – and in that sense, contains the essence of tragicocomedia. If I may say so myself, I think the vectors in this image are great. The eyes are so expressive in their diagonal focus, while the position of the hands, the direction of the forearms and the tilt of the shoulders, like a rolling boxer, lend the image a light, dancing quality in contrast with the darker mood of the mask.

The tender and self-absorbed manner in which the young girl is examining herself, has real pathos – both delicate and sad. The polar-necked woolen top was a fortunate choice in that it situates the mask so seamlessly, making these two elements a natural fit despite their obvious contextual differences. The juxtaposition of the masks on one side and humans on the other also frames the subject with the two worlds married in the middle. The bandaid on the subject’s forefinger is a cute reminder of the everyday divide from the decadent glamour of the Venetian Carnivale.

I was drunk when I took this photograph. Drifting around Venice in gorgeous sunshine, toting a two litre bottiglia of vino da tavola and smoking way too many cigarettes. It was the last day of an eight-day campaign across northern Italy and I really felt like cutting loose. I remember that day very vividly as one on which I spent a lot of time looking for public toilets and took some of the best photographs I’ve ever taken. Around two in the afternoon, I took a prime position at the peak of the Rialto and shot down the grand canal for the next couple of hours. This shot was taken just prior to that, on the approach to the Rialto Bridge.

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Ranakpur, Rajasthan, India, March 2010

Ranakpur, Rajasthan, India, March 27, 2010

This shot was taken at the Jain Temple in Ranakpur, Rajasthan, in March 2010. It probably goes without saying that it is the clarity of the main subject in this photo that I like most of all, but without the hanging bells, I don’t think this would be as effective. This was really just a case of patience paying off – hanging around the temple and waiting for people to walk into my chosen line of sight. The angle and swing of the bells was equally fortunate.

The Jain temple at Ranakpur is one of the most remarkable buildings I’ve ever visited. It’s impossible to get any sense of it from this shot, but if you’ve not been there, it’s well worth Googling just to see the interior. Constructed in the middle of the 15th century of mostly white and off-white marble, it is famous for having 1444 exquisitely carved marble pillars, each of which is different from the others.

It is a beautifully clean and peaceful place, far lighter than the gothic cathedrals of Europe, though equally if not more elaborate in its detailed reliefs. The stone also seems less heavy – despite their often soaring heights and delicate design, Gothic has a weightiness which was only relieved in its overly baroque perpendicular incarnation. The temple at Ranakpur seems almost to float, something greatly assisted by the less confronting and far more pleasing themes depicted in its reliefs. As lovers of animals, the Jains adorned their temple with all manner of cute beasts, unlike the spoilsports of western Europe with their terrorising visions of ghastly gargoyles, imps and grim, serious men. Just make sure you leave your leather belt and shoes outside, as the Jains don’t like anything made using animals inside their temples.

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