Sunday, 21 September 2014

Poppies, poppies, poppies, poppies, POPPIES!

Ever since I saw the first pictures of the ceramic poppy art installation at the Tower of London, I was determined to spend some quality time there with my camera. It's an ambitious project, called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, the moat around the tower is being filled each day with handmade ceramic poppies assembled and "planted" by volunteers. When complete, on November 11th, each of the 888,246 poppies will represent a British military fatality during WW1.

A year and a half ago our office was very close to the Tower of London and I could walk past there several times a day. I would have loved the opportunity to capture the poppies in every available light in the morning and evening. But we're based over in Bloomsbury now and the Tower of London is not on my normal route. I was lucky to be able to swing by after a visit to a client and circled the path around the tower trying to find the best vantage point for my first poppy photos. Of course it starting raining almost immediately but I was still able to capture some of the splendour of the burgeoning red carpet.

When I'd heard that AL had enquired about volunteering for herself and five friends, I was very keen to be part of the half a dozen early risers. I would have preferred not having to check in at 9am on a Sunday morning but for poppies I was willing to sacrifice sleep and knew it would be worth it. En route I was buoyed by the blue skies and hoped they would linger for our shift of ceramic gardening. I met a lovely woman on the tube who'd volunteered previously and promised I'd have a magnificent day. She also predicted the rain on Saturday would make the ground more amenable to our efforts. Due to the joys of Sunday morning travel I thought I might arrive late, but judiciously jumped in a taxi at Embankment and ended up arriving first, phew!

After checking in we're handed a red volunteer t-shirt and shown an instructional video demonstrating the ceramic poppies being made in the workshop and how we assemble each one in preparation for planting. First we select a rod of a variety of lengths. We feed a small washer, a larger washer and then a spacer, followed by an end cap onto the rod. This is much trickier than it sounds as the washers have to be a tight fit to do their job and even though I'm having to wear gardening gloves to shield me from all that rubberiness, despite the protection my fingers and thumbs are very quickly sore. The end caps are fiendish and all around you can hear the bang bang bang of the volunteers tapping the caps on the wooden assembly tables. When you're on planting duty, you have to remove the end cap (just as tough as placing it on in the first place), impale the rod in the designated location, place a ceramic poppy on top of the washers and persuade the end caps back on again, this didn't get easier. We each undertake a stint of assembly and planting. We rush through our shift quicker than expected and have some quality photography time amongst the poppies. And I was lucky with the blue sky, I just had to get under the tall poppies to capture the poppy red against the blue. I walked around and around shooting over 150 photos from every angle, the poppies against the lake walls of the tower, the red against the blue and the green, the poppies spewing out of the window, the sea of red, juxtaposed against the Shard and the skyline.

Thank you AL for getting us our "red ticket", it was a poignant experience thinking of the significance of each bloom and the tiny part we played in the piece. After 11th November, more volunteers will remove all the pottery flowers and send them back to the workshop for cleaning up and packaging up to send out to those who've pledged for one to support the six service charities that will benefit. I've already got my name down for one, I am sure it will be photographed as well.



Friday, 19 September 2014

Das Wesentliche

Day two of Photokina was more of the same, though I was able to tear myself away from Leica to check out other exhibits. I schlepped over to 3 Legged Thing (they were curiously far away from the other purveyors of tripods) to ask some questions regarding Brian, my new metal friend . En route they were countless opportunities to photograph motorbikes, models, pineapples (?) and Eagles.

Leica's philosophy is "das wesentliche" which I learnt was "the essence", hence the marked tranquillity of the Leica wing compared to their peers. Venture one step out of their sanctuary and you're assailed by pumping beats, flashing lights and gaudiness. Whereas Leica countered this with subtly lit photographs and a concert



Thursday, 18 September 2014

Love at first sight

Now I know how handy my hotel is for the main station and the cathedral (should I be so inclined)

I met my soon-to-be new Leica today...and it met one of my penguins. It was love at first click. I'd pores over the specifications when they were realised in Monday evening and I knew this was going to be something special. But the reality was even better, I love the weight and styling, the solid feel, the simple controls abandoning the A, S, M and P of old and replacing with a more intuitative approach.

First impressions of Photokina 2014. Nikon was very yellow and has cool show bags (might grab one for a Nikon owner) Canon, more red dots than Leica, loud music and female staff wear red bob wigs. Leica, cool, elegant and akin to a photography jewellery shop with shiny things in cabinets and gorgeous goodies at every turn. The Leica Galerie has wall to wall inspirational photography to scrutinise and interesting talks to attend. The Galerie theme this time was music and photography, so photographs of musicians and the general rock and roll lifestyle plus shots taken by musicians (Jamie Cullen, for example) The only downside of the day is that my new baby isn't due to be in my hot little hands until the END of November...sigh!


Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Eat, sleep, shoot, repeat!

As I left Photokina in 2012, I started thinking ahead to my next visit a whole two years later in 2014. It's a massive event, there were about 186K of us who made the pilgrimage from 166 countries two years ago. I was also convinced I should prolong my stay, there's a lot to see in one day so I should consider a two day trip instead. So back in May I started hatching my plans for Photokina 2014, I asked around to see if anyone wanted to join me but when I couldn't get a definite commitment I went ahead with my own plans. The Photokina had some partner hotels recommended but I struggled to find out their whereabouts. I tried to copied their details into the dreaded but useful Tripadvisor but so many weren't even there which didn't fill me with confidence. I ended up with a curious boutique hotel very close to the main station. My flight got me in late and luckily I'd noticed the hotel didn't have a 24 hour reception so made arrangements for my hotel room to be left in a combination lock box on the wall next to the Turkish restaurant. Due to leaving the station by the wrong exit, I was at the back of the station rather than the front, I was tantalisingly close to my hotel but I just couldn't locate it. I did however, pick up a creepy guy who started following me through the deserted back streets common to a typical main city train station. Luckily I espied a hotel with a similar name to mine that had a reception and took refuge within. Creepy guy followed me in hoping to tap us for money and find a place where he could spend that money on drink. I waited as long as I could without stumping up for another room and tackled the station again. I eventually found the front entrance and by luck found my hotel shortly after. I had tried to use Google maps via my earphones but frankly it didn't help, I suspect it made me just look more like a lost tourist and hence a target.But the room was bizarre but fine and I could get some sleep, dream of new cameras before hitting Photokina in the morning.



Friday, 5 September 2014

A juicy peach of a place

After our elegant pit stop we hit the meandering roads en route to the peach farm. I am not entirely sure I knew what to expect…except for perhaps peaches. But it actually transpired that the harvest had been early this year and peaches were now in surprisingly short supply, certainly on the trees. No branches heavy with perfumed fruit, though we did find some apples and luscious grapes whilst exploring the fields and orchards. Luckily they had held back a stash of their velvety peaches as they were certainly the finest peaches I have ever tasted. And they make rather nice subject for a photograph or two too!

Our tutor has family connections on the peach farm and they certainly rolled out the red carpet for us. They were so hospitable and invited us to stay for supper. I had been introducing the joys of miniature photography with Marcel the balloon seller to their lovely son, who was most keen to practise both English and photography. I didn’t have another Marcel to hand, but luckily I had my emergency back-up penguin (naturally) and could donate that to the cause of macro photography. Perhaps a rare occurrence of a penguin going to live on a farm!


After we had admired their photobooks, created from photos of a recent exotic holiday, it was time to take some more of our own. We checked out their impressive vintage tractor collection and fired off some shots of the fruit pickers at work. Then we went investigating the furthermost orchards, hoping for some late fruit, but the nectarines we found weren’t so photogenic. Undeterred we soon started to explore the joys of a dandelion clock, a gold/silver coloured framed sun-bounce reflector and the dying rays of sun.


Firstly we thought we’d experiment with the different effects achieved by flipping the reflector whilst ‘plamping’ the dandelion clock to have the sky in the background. But then we were struck by a desire to destroy every single dandelion seed head in the entire orchard by attempting to capture an action shot of the individual seeds parachuting away after blowing on the said dandelion clock. I cannot recall how many times we attempted to capture this effect in a single shot, in the end I had to resort to burst shooting and stacking multiple exposures in post-processing. Beyond frustrating! But on the bright sight, they won’t be troubled with dandelions for the rest of this year and possibly the next.

After our weed eradication we returned to the farm for the planned supper and join their other guests who had popped by. It transpired to be such an unexpectedly special and unforgettable evening. Only one of our group spoke French, but even without English we could somehow generally follow what was going on. We enjoyed fabulous cured meats courtesy of the twinkly eyes pig farmer (who, I suspect had better English that he let on!), lots of other delicious food and of course finished off with more of those astonishing peaches. What lovely people and a sublime, convivial evening. It was very hard to tear ourselves away to return to our rooms in Curnier for one final time. Tomorrow we have to leave all this and head home.


Birds, branches and bread

Today we are planning to meander slowly down to a peach farm and see what catches our eye en route. One of the many things I've really loved about this particular holiday is that with a small group, and with not having a jam-packed schedule, we can go with the flow and see what appeals to our little photogenic hearts. We chosen restaurants that appealed to us right then rather than being dictated by a pre-arranged booking. We've stayed longer at a place that feeds our photographic souls and swiftly move on when we are sated. We've had amazing and slightly stomach churning adventures like the spluttering propeller plane adventure and because we all love fine food are happy to upgrade our budgets and splash out on some exemplary cooking and delicious wines. We've also taken a whole smelly soft cheese, baguettes and apple juice up a mountain and had an impromptu picnic. And the photography has been inspirational, we've poured over the huge variety of festival exhibits, we've crouched down getting that perfect monochromatic Pétanque shot, gazed down on stunning vistas, explored street art and street photography, hunted shy flamingos, tried shooting from the hip, landscape, macro, aerial, food, the occasional portrait (though we suspect we might step that up today), worn lots of hats and it's been such enormous fun. Whatever we end up doing, photographing and eating can only be the icing on the cake.
One of these random stops is a lovely looking restaurant in a village square called (I'm fairly sure) the bird on the branch. It looks modern and fresh and enticing smells are wafting over towards us. Our decision is cemented when the waiter delivered a small stick well hung with rounds of bread. The stick slots into a circular stand already on the table and we have our own wooden bird on a branch. There are dishes of different flavoured oils and our branch is replenished as we taste the various oily concoctions.
There's further opportunity to people watch and fire off a few more shots from the hip. I'm pretty sure I was rumbled, however, when I tried to take a cheeky shot of a dog plus its companions.


Thursday, 4 September 2014

Not so starry night

We have earmarked a good spot for more night photography. We bundle up and locate our verge and try and capture the illuminated tower in the village below. The church is intriguing as it is sitting on top of a much older pillared building. Sadly the night sky isn't as clear tonight as previous nights so I struggle with getting the fabulous star shots. In the end I make do with some slow shutter speed photos of the approaching cars.


The top of the world

More mountaineering this afternoon, but thankfully by car. We are going to 'climb' to the peak of Mont Ventoux, part of the Tour de France and much favoured by ambitious cyclists.


En route we're challenged to capture some sort of cycling images summing up the majority of the traffic we zoom past, though it's a bit of effort for our hired dad-car. I opt for making use of the strong shadows.


It really is beautiful when we reach the summit. Cyclists who've puffed their way up this beast of a climb are photographed proudly by the post marking the tipper most peak. It seems wrong to pose when we've been driven to the spot so I wait for a gap in the queue to clutch the post in triumph, to take my photo!

Curiously it seems higher up the top of the mountain, than when we were flying around in the big blue.


Above us are gliders seemingly flying too close to the sun. Haven't they heard of Icarus? This enormous peak is also a popular spot for skiing so the blue and red poles are there for the slalom, when of course the snow returns. The white rubble gives the impression of the cool slopes and from vantage position you can see further cyclists toiling up the winding road and the exuberant ones making the downward journey.