Archive for the ‘photography’ category

Lighting the darkness

June 18, 2017

Amongst the things I like about living in the North-East of Scotland are mid-summer nights. From early June to mid-July it is never totally dark. Last night it was beautifully war, and I went for a country walk at around midnight, returning at 1 am. This is what I saw as I left the house.

Ythsie at midnight

And this was the sky on my return.

Ythsie at 1 am

This may not be the warmest place in Britain, but it is one of the most beautiful.

 

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Presidential image

February 14, 2017

Today is February 14, and I suspect that the overwhelming majority of people associate this day with Saint Valentine. Although the saint’s name is today – and this day in particular – associated with romantic love and with the cajolery of the greeting card industry in particular, it is far from clear whether it is Valentine who should be attracting our attention today.

I’ll go instead for President James K. Polk, who was President of the United States between 1845 and 1849. On February 14 1849, during his final year in office, Polk was the first sitting US President to have his photograph taken – a daguerreotype taken in New York city. As an amateur photographer myself, I find this a really interesting moment of political and photographic history.

But one should not pass in the vicinity of President Polk without mentioning that he came into office unexpectedly, having offered to the electorate an ambitious set of goals which, over his four year term (he had promised to stand for one term only), he managed fully to achieve. One of the things he achieved was an expansion of the powers of the presidency.

Polk was what has been termed a ‘consequential’ president, in that his decisions and actions created change. He is mostly recognised for extending the borders of the US to the Pacific. But then again, his actions included a somewhat brutal war with Mexico, and he was himself also a slaveholder. He was at best a president with an ambivalent record in office.

His expansion of the United States from coast to coast may be his main claim to a place in history; but for me it is his photograph, taken on February 14 1849.

 

Analogue tales

July 5, 2015

I was standing behind two teenagers waiting for a bus the other day, and one was telling the other about a get-together planned for that evening with some old school friends. ‘Wow’, said the other, ‘that’s so analogue Facebook’. I chuckled at the expression. But right now we can still laugh because even the two teenagers still had some point of reference to distinguish between a real life meeting and social media interaction. They also understood that many things digital have or had an analogue antecedent.

record

 

But is the analogue world slipping away from us? Or is it more resilient than we sometimes thing? After all, vinyl records are apparently making a comeback. And I have set my Apple Watch (and yes, of course I have one) to show an analogue clock on its home screen. I still have (and use) a telephone on which I can really dial numbers.

analog

And in between reading stuff on my iPad, I still buy hard copy books.

reading

It’s not all gone.

watch

PS. However, all the above photos were taken with the iPhone 6 camera and edited with Photoshop. Hm.

The Berlin story

October 10, 2014

As some readers know, I am German by birth but have not lived in Germany for many years; I last emigrated from my country of birth in 1974, moving to Ireland (for the second time) in that year. Since then I have returned for visits only infrequently.

However, every so often I do visit, and last month I spent three days in Berlin. It is not a city I knew well at all, having only visited twice previously, and each time for less than 12 hours. My first visit was in 1976, when the city was still divided, and on that occasion I was also able to visit East Berlin as it then was. The second time was not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I imagine that whatever impression anyone has of Berlin, it will always include a very powerful sense of seeing a city where the storms of history have blown more than in most places. There are signs of this everywhere, from the buildings and monuments of the city’s Prussian days, to the remaining evidence of destruction in World War 2, to the surviving reminders of communism and Cold War division.

Large parts of the city are still a building site. Restoration and recreation – the erection of buildings modelled entirely on destroyed and vanished edifices – is taking place alongside modern development. It is an astonishing sight. And then there is what one Berliner called ‘the return of history’ – Berlin is now the only city outside of Israel that has a growing Jewish population, an astonishing development.

The most recognisable landmark in Berlin is still the Brandenburg Gate. It was built in the late 18th century, based on the gateway to the Acropolis in Athens. It marked part of the outer boundary of Berlin at the time. In later years it became a major part of ceremonial processions, witnessing the passing through over time of Napoleon, Kaiser Wilhelm, Hitler and the Soviet Red Army. During the period when Germany was ruled by Kaiser Wilhelm II, only he was permitted to pass through the central arch of the gate; citizens had to pass on the left or right. During the Cold War the gate marked part of the boundary between East and West Berlin. The ‘Quadriga’ on top of the gate (chariot with four horses) has had a life of its own, having been removed by Napoleon and taken to Paris, then later restored, partly destroyed in World War II and subsequently restored (but only partly) and later fully restored. The Brandenburg Gate was at the heart of the events around the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

I took this photo during this visit, just after a heavy downpour of rain.

Brandenburg Gate

Brandenburg Gate

The centre of political activity, now as in past periods (though not during the Cold War), is the Reichstag (the old Imperial Parliament). Badly damaged in the War, it seas restored and used as an occasional home for the West German Parliament, the Bundestag (then based in Bonn), until the 1990s, despite its location right on the border between East and West. It is now the permanent location for the Bundestag. The glass cupola (containing a restaurant) was famously designed by British architect Sir Norman Foster (who also designed one of the buildings on my campus). The Reichstag is surrounded by a whole city quarter dedicated entirely to parliamentary and government buildings.

Reichstag

Reichstag

One of the most overpowering buildings in Berlin is the Lutheran (Protestant) cathedral, located on the fascinating ‘Museum Island’. Built in the early 20th century during the Wilhelmine era, it reflected the Kaiser’s desire for Berlin to have a church that would rival St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. It may have, more or less, succeeded. The extraordinarily ornate interior is overwhelming.

Berlin Cathedral front elevation

Berlin Cathedral front elevation

Berlin Cathedral high altar

Berlin Cathedral high altar

Berlin is a city of museums and galleries.

Museum Island

Museum Island

My guide book says it has the largest number of such facilities of any city in the world, and certainly you could spend weeks doing nothing else but visiting them. There are several major galleries, and museums on any subject you might care to mention. Though not strictly a museum, one building that caught my attention in particular was the New Synagogue. It isn’t ‘new’ in any contemporary sense, but was built as a sign of the confidence of the German Jewish community in the 19th century, some of whose surviving descendants have amazingly returned to live in Berlin. Not all of the building has survived, but the restored parts now house both a synagogue and a museum (separate from the huge Jewish Museum elsewhere in Berlin).

New Synagogue cupola over the rooftops

New Synagogue cupola over the rooftops

New Synagogue entrance

New Synagogue entrance

The plaque next to the door has the following inscription: ’50 years after the desecration of this synagogue and 45 years after its destruction, this house will rise again in accordance with our will and with the support of many friends in this country. The Jewish community of Berlin, 9 November 1988′.

Of course history never ends. But we may hope that it will not, in this place, retrace its steps. I don’t believe it will.

Southern stories

August 2, 2014

I have always been interested in the American Civil War. It was a conflict which, in many ways, introduced the industrial warfare that became so deadly in the 20th century. It was for example the first conflict in which a submarine was used successfully in a military engagement. It introduced elements of military strategy and tactics that would be copied and developed in later wars. It saw death and destruction and scorched earth measures – in particular Sherman’s ‘March to the Sea‘ along the Savannah River. But its significance extends far beyond the military events of the 1860s. The war was also a political battleground on which civilisation and culture and rights were contested. There are, I believe, few wars in history that had a greater impact on the world. It ultimately heralded and facilitated the rise of the American era in world affairs.

But it was also a human story. The Civil War gave starring roles to huge personalities such as Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. But more importantly, it is the canvas on which the stories of thousands upon thousands of ‘ordinary’ people were painted, people who struggled to understand and make sense of the changing environment in which they lived. The most interesting places in which to retrace these stories is now the American South. And that is one of the reasons why I like travelling to the southern states.

This year, for ten days I took a vacation with my family near Augusta in Georgia. Known to many people as a golfing destination, Augusta is a town steeped in history. There are two buildings that, on this visit, attracted my attention in particular. The first was the Redcliffe plantation house, just across the state line in South Carolina. The 19th century house was built for John Henry Hammond, a major politician who became known in particular for his advocacy of slavery. He declared that ‘in all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties.’ In a speech to the US Senate in 1858 he declared that nobody would wage war against the South because ‘cotton is king’. Quite apart from his political views, Hammond was an unpleasant and somewhat cruel man in almost every aspect of his life.

The plantation house, below, is now a museum, and some of the slave cabins have also been preserved.

redcliffe

The second building is in Augusta itself, the Confederate Powderworks. This was built in 1861 to provide a facility in which to manufacture gunpowder for the Confederate army. It was located here because the Savannah River provided convenient transport access. The chimney of the factory, preserved officially as a ‘Confederate Memorial’, has the following inscription on its side:

‘This Obelisk Chimney — sole remnant of the extensive Powder Works here erected under the auspices of the Confederate Government — is by the Confederate Survivors’ Association of Augusta, with the consent of the City Council, conserved in Honor of a fallen Nation, and inscribed to the memory of those who died in the Southern Armies during the War Between the States.’

confedfactory

The complexity and harshness of elements of the Southern culture is also well illustrated in the painting below, entitled ‘The Price of Blood’, by 19th century American artist Thomas Satterwhite Noble that can be seen in the ‘Southern Stories’ section of Augusta’s art gallery. What it depicts is described as follows:

‘This painting … depicts a gentleman farmer transacting the fate of his own bi-racial son. The richly dressed man stares fixedly at the viewer while the sale is conducted. His son, the barefooted young man on the left, appears to be resolved to his fate. Though connected by blood, they are clearly separated by race and all that that difference implies.’

thepriceofblood-agustagallery

The photograph of the painting was taken by me (without flash) with permission from the gallery staff.

But today’s South, while tending to nurture politicians with rightwing views, isn’t just the place that once hosted slavery. It has its own way of life and its own culture, which even though I usually disagree with the local politics has some attraction for me. Perhaps it’s illustrated by this song, Southern State of Mind, sung by black singer Darius Rucker.

Tales of a city

June 21, 2014

We often hear that London (and its surrounding area) unbalances the island of Britain, and in particular its economy. Perhaps it does. However, London is also one of the really great metropolitan centres of the world, and it is possible to lose oneself in its sights and sounds and the great energy of its people and its culture. I don’t get to do this often, but I always enjoy it when I do.

Here are some fairly random sights from a recent visit. First, we have the view from the London Docklands Light Railway, on its way from London City Airport to Tower Gateway. I have, as you will see, done some editing on this photo to turn it from a fairly ordinary scene into a kind of fantasy.

Docklands

Docklands

Here is a dwarf’s eye view of Big Ben clock tower, followed by one of Westminster Abbey.

The Palace of Westminster clock tower, containing Big Ben

The Palace of Westminster clock tower, containing Big Ben

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

And here are two London icons, albeit in one case in modernised form. The wonderful telephone box designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, alongside a modern version of London’s traditional Routemaster bus.

London icons

London icons

The style of these photos reflects my sense of London as a place of dreams. There are other cities that I love, not least Edinburgh and my own Aberdeen, and of course Dublin, and Paris, and Berlin, and Vienna, and New York – but London is drawn on such a wide canvas that it manages to be, in some ways, the whole world.

Another Newcastle

May 14, 2014

Readers of this blog will know that I am a supporter of Newcastle United FC, with all the ups and downs associated with that particular interest.

Newcastle is of course more than a football club. The city is interesting in all sorts of ways. Earlier this month my son and I visited the city to watch the last home game of the season in St James’ Park. To our surprise and delight Newcastle actually won the game. But I also used the opportunity to take some photos in the city, and these are below. On this occasion I had forgotten to bring any of my cameras, so what you see below was taken with my iPhone.

Hotel Beehive

Hotel Beehive

Newcastle Cathedral

Newcastle Cathedral

Newcastle alleyway

Newcastle alleyway

Central Arcade

Central Arcade