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Archive for the ‘Favourite Shots’ Category

Prague, June 8, 2007

Prague, June 8, 2007

The elderly gent in this shot seemed to be pausing to pull out a cigarette. I’m not sure whether he did or not – this was the last shot of the sequence – though perhaps I have remembered him doing so and the idea is now fixed. This was taken in Prague on a fine June day in 2007, during my first, only, and rather belated visit to the place. I had long wanted to go to Prague after finding it to be the most talked about city in Europe amongst other backpackers during my inaugural trip around the continent in 1996-7. That was only a few years after the Velvet Revolution and Prague was still opening up to the world – a sexy, dirty and dirt-cheap cultural powerhouse.

By the time I arrived in Prague in 2007, the place had been significantly gentrified. It was striking how clean and well-groomed many of the old buildings were – fresh paint, sandblasted stone-work, clean streets around them. I heard some people – other tourists – complaining about this; as though Prague had lost its edginess and become just another city in Mitteleuropa. For all I know many Czechs may well have felt the same, yet all I could think was how nice it was that this beautiful old city was being looked after properly. Unfortunately part and parcel of this transformation was also a steep rise in the cost of living for locals, partly due to its attractiveness to people like me – tourists. Dammit.

I draw no relation between Prague’s sprucing up and the work this man is doing on the rooftop, which seemed merely a private residence. Yet there was a noticeable amount of construction activity going on – mostly in the way of restoration. It lent the town a sort of spring-clean zeitgeist; an air of getting ready for something, of applying the finishing touches. Clearly my visit was not the focus of all their activity, and I just marched about for a few long, hot days; shooting all the beauty.

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Varkala Beach, Kerala, December 24, 2012

Varkala Beach, Kerala, December 24, 2012

This choice is mostly on account of its seasonal spirit – the shot was taken on the morning of Christmas Eve in Varkala, Kerala, India in 2012. That morning the beach was full of people, promenading on the sand, enjoying the sea air, and partaking in various religious rites. A local priest had set up a small shrine on the beach, the altar built atop a mound of sand, and some smallish painted idols had been placed nearby. Kerala has a large Christian community, courtesy of Portuguese colonialism, and it was interesting to see how Christmas celebrations were blended with more traditional practises. Some locals made offerings of rice and flowers to the sea, wading in knee-deep, though very few, apart from the local canoe fishermen, went further into the water.

The early crowd can be seen in the background; the stretch of beach on which the man runs was tidally cut off by a cluster of rocks, out of shot, and was near deserted. At 0700 AM, it was already warm and the humid haze can be seen building in the greyish sky. The water was a bath-like 24-25 degrees and remained shallow for almost a hundred metres out to sea.

This young man seemed a rare sight – apart from playing cricket, or the all too common back-breaking physical labour, it isn’t that common to see Indian people exercising in public. He had a real spring in his step and seemed quite delighted with his morning run. Whether he was a local or one of the many tourists who had come to spend Christmas at the sea, I’m not sure, but he certainly offered a celebratory spirit on that jetlagged first morning in India.

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1050 Venice 2

Venice Fish Markets, March 8, 2007

1438 Venice (2)

Venice Fish Markets, March 8, 2007

The fish markets in Venice are a busy place in the mornings and offer great people-watching opportunities. Traditional markets nearly always make for potentially excellent subject matter as they not only contain such a variety of objects and colours, but they also often contain some real characters. The markets are open until around five in the afternoon, by which time things have wound down considerably and most of the vendors have either gone, or are busily in the process of packing up. Once the place has been cleared, the cleaners come in to hose it down. Fortunately, the space remains open to the public and one can still wander around after closing time.

The market building, a modestly-sized neo-gothic arcade, roughly five arches wide either side, sits on a bend in the Grand Canal, with another canal to one side, perpendicular to the main artery. It therefore offers quite a wide view from its edges, but the interior space also has a simple attractiveness to it. The red canvas awnings combine beautifully with the blue tarpaulins to create a colourful and vibrant luminosity which reflects in the wet flagstones. It is a very engaging place to visit, open or closed, and is located near to the Rialto. Indeed, it is referred to as the Rialto Market or the Campo della Pescheria.

These two shots constitute a before and after image of the markets. The chap with the cigarette certainly seemed an indomitable character with a lot of flair about him, evidenced through his choice of hat and cigarette holder. Then again, these could equally be seen as practical choices – keeping his hair off the fish and allowing him to hold his cigarette without wetting it, or covering it in squid ink, for that matter.

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Three young men, Shekhawati, Rajasthan, India, April 1, 2010

Three young men, Shekhawati, Rajasthan, India, April 1, 2010

This shot was one of many wonderful gifts given to me by Indian people during my first trip to India in 2010. Being generally pretty shy when it comes to strangers, I tend to photograph people furtively, from a distance, rather than shoving my camera in their face. This means that most of the time I get candid shots of people whose attention is elsewhere and not focussed on the camera. For the most part this is great, and I generally prefer candid shots of people doing whatever it is they are doing, yet sometimes the lack of eye-contact deprives the photo of the arresting intimacy that direct portraits can offer. Fortunately, in India, many people ask to have their photo taken, which makes it possible to get some lovely portraits, without any feelings of guilt or, at worst, exploitation.

These three young boys approached me in the  Rajasthani town of Shekhawati, famous for its gorgeously decorated old Havelis – a type of private mansion common in parts of India and Pakistan. They were curious as to where I was from and, as with so many Indians, wanted to know what I thought of India. After a brief exchange, they all requested that I take their photo and quickly arranged themselves in front of the camera. I remember how excited I was at the time, because they were such great subjects with their immaculate, wonderfully styled clothes and their friendly, expressive faces. I wanted nothing more than to take their photo, and yet would likely have been too shy to ask myself.

While all three make engaging subjects, I especially like the fact that the young man to the right of the frame chose to look away at the crucial moment, thus adding an unexpected dynamism to this triple portrait. His cocked leg and crossed arms give him an air of confident nonchalance, which matches his carefree smile. I only wish I had time to ask who their tailor was, in which case I’d have had enough shirts and trousers made to last me a life time. What clothes!

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Self-Portrait, All Saints Passage, Cambridge, July 25, 2006

Self-Portrait, All Saints Passage, Cambridge, July 25, 2006

Though it may at first appear otherwise, this is not an elsie but a selfie. If you look closer you’ll see I’m holding the remote control in my left hand, whilst trying to act as candidly as possible. This is perhaps made easier by the addition of the cigarette, one of the occasional smoky treats enjoyed in what was to be my final phase of smoking. I’m sitting in the second-floor window of a house in the very narrow All Saints Passage in Cambridge, England, no doubt wondering what on earth to do with myself.

This photo has always been a personal favourite – it’s the only shot I have of myself in this house, where I lived for just over a month in the long and beautiful English summer of 2006. Having arrived back in Cambridge six weeks earlier, after a two and a half year absence, I relied on the charity of close friends and my old college, rather unexpectedly finding myself co-lecturing a summer school on South African literature, before finally settling into another house for a longer haul. My friend C and I had a lot of fun during this time, and, indeed, in this house, and we still occasionally refer with great affection to “The All-Saints Passage Years”. Though it may seem to be a deliberately placed prop, symbolic of the college context, the cricket bat is entirely accidental.

This low window, with its protective grate, was a splendid place to sit and smoke and watch people walk down the passage. It was a warm summer and I was still running on the energy of having made big decisions – clinging tenuously to a new life in England; or, rather, a nostalgic attempt to recapture the old. As will most such grand projects, it all ended rather disappointingly a couple of years later, but I still recall with great pleasure the intensity of the time and its romance. Ambition should be made of sterner stuff!

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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.

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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.

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