2020

Last year wasn’t a normal year but this time twelve months ago many of us were hardly aware of what was to come. At the best it would be a disturbing year, stuck indoors and isolated, riding the highs and lows as the pandemic ebbed and flowed.

This was how 2020 was for me in twelve photographs.

January

Poster for riding to the end of the road exhibition
The poster for the “Riding to the end of the Road” Exhibition, Januaruy 2020

In January 2020 I was more worried about hanging photographs and serving finger food for the opening of my exhibition, “Riding to the end of the Road” than I was about a new virus emerging in China.

February

View from the top deck of a London bus on a rainy evening
View from the top deck of a London bus on a rainy evening

One rainy evening in February I was heading home from work on the top deck of a bus, and I was struck by the effects of the raindrops and the lights of the vehicles ahead. I quickly took a few photographs on my phone. That was probably the last time I have ridden on a bus.

March

Detail of an old bicycle pedal
Detail of an old bicycle pedal

In March, as the first lockdown in the UK began and photography had become an indoor activity. I turned to self-portraits and still life. For the latter I hunted out some old bicycle components to photograph. It became a welcome distraction to focus on setting up and lighting the objects and for a while I was lost in the details of old pedals, derailleurs and brake blocks.

April

Easter 2020

April brought Easter tide, an opportunity to get out and about. Not this year.

May

Detail of an old Yew Tree
Detail of an old Yew Tree in a churchyard on the edges of London

In May, tentatively, I began to cycle a little further afield. In the UK we had always been allowed to exercise, and cycling was encouraged. I rode to the outskirts of London and came upon this ancient yew tree in a churchyard. Allegedly it has grown for more than 2000 years. It has seen so much.

June

Fishermans' cottages outside the village of Langton Herring in Dorset.
Fishermans’ cottages outside the village of Langton Herring in Dorset.

Stuck indoors for long periods of time I began tidying the flat. In the process I came upon a box of old 35mm slides taken when I started photographing back in the 1970s and 80s. They were mostly of the Dorset countryside and coast where I grew up. Somehow I had carried this box of slides through my life and I thought I would repurpose them. If I could not travel physically in space, then I would travel in time with my memories.

July

As the summer wore on and optimism grew that the world would soon return to some degree of normality (a misplaced optimism in the event) I began to cycle a little further. The great thing about cycling is that it can be a self-contained activity; it is transport and exercise combined. You just need to make sure that you are prepared for the ride, and your bicycle is well maintained.  In July I travelled further out of London and picked up on a project I had started a year or two ago.

Watering cans and a dog bowl congregate around a water butt in a churchyard somewhere in Hertfordshire
Watering cans and a dog bowl congregate around a water butt in a churchyard somewhere in Hertfordshire

On visits to country churches I had been struck by the corners of the churchyards where the watering cans and recycling bins were usually stored. To me they represented the practical aspects of grief and remembrance. It is a subject I hope to return to, so look out for more photographs on this theme in the future.

August

Paddle boarders, Weymouth Bay, August 2020
Paddle boarders, Weymouth Bay, August 2020

Then in August I travelled the furthest I had done since the beginning of January.  This was to Dorset to spend two nights camping under the socially distanced stars. I was able to see some of my family, and take a few photographs, including this one of a group of paddle boarders tentatively testing the water in Weymouth Bay. It represents how many of us felt throughout 2020.

September

A cyclist riding on a bike lane on Pancras Road, London, September 2020

One of the positives for me of the year was the growth in the number of people cycling. Public transport such as buses which push people together became very unpopular. Driving allowed people to isolate but would gridlock the streets. Alternatives needed to be found and many local authorities began to build pop-up bike lanes to encourage more people to try cycling. In September I took these photographs of cyclists using the bike lane on Pancras Road. It was a Sunday afternoon and there was a steady stream of cyclists in both directions.

October

Winter crops, Cambridgeshire

In October I went for one more long distance bike ride, this time out to the Cambridgeshire Fens. It was train assisted at a time when the trains were very quiet and you could get a whole carriage to yourself. I have always loved the Fens as much for the wide open skies as the land itself.

November

A man wearing a mask walks past an unused table tennis table in a park during the Covid 19 lockdown

Then in November came the next lockdown in England.

I did experience some joy that month when I received notification that I had become a Licientate of the Royal Photograpic Society.

December

A solitary red bauble

In December there were unrealistic hopes for a slightly more relaxed Christmas. Sadly, the virus does not take holidays, so many of us spent Christmas in a strange and isolated world. As I decorated the flat for the holidays I sought escape, as before, in photographing the detail.


And here we are in 2021 where I should end with something more positive. There are a range of vaccines available now which are beginning to be administered, but there are also new variants of the virus appearing. To find hope I return to that picture of the ancient yew tree and a reminder of what it might have seen in the 2000 years it has stood there. It has seen the darkest moments but it has also seen the brightest of times. It is a bit of a cliche but holding onto that thought is a comfort.

In the meantime I will continue to make photogaphs and publish some of them here for you to see.

Best wishes for 2021.

Landscape

“Why take photographs?”
“What am I trying to say?”
To answer that question, I want to look at some of the photographs I have taken in particular genres and answer another question:
“Why did I take that picture?”

A little while I took a look at some of my street photography.

This time I am going to look at some of my landscape photographs, and answer why I chose to take these particular subjects. What caught my eye and why do I want to share that image with you?

To capture a place

Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire

The most obvious reason for photographing a landscape is because you are so taken by the view, the sunrise, the sunset, the soaring mountains, the stormy sea, the city at night, the deep forest that you feel you have to stop and look and hold what you see before you.

That was the case when I took this photograph of Ely Cathedral in Cambridgeshire as it rose above the trees, under a dramatic sky.

This photograph also illustrates one of the main things you need when taking landscape photography – patience. I was cycling by and glanced to the side of the road to see the cathedral lit up as the sun broke through the clouds. By the time I had stopped and got my camera, the clouds had covered the sun and the marvellous tower of the cathedral was lost in the shade. It was a windy day, and I hoped the clouds would break again and let the sun through. So, I waited for a while and was rewarded with this photograph. I hope that I managed to do the scene justice.

To capture a moment in time

A field somewhere in Hertfordshire, May, 2020

A family walk through a field of poppies on a bright summer’s day. I was not the only person attracted to the display; quite a few others were wandering through and around the field, but I was able to isolate this small group as they walked towards the trees. Their presence gives some scale to the sheer and overwhelming quantity of red flowers all the way to the horizon.

This photograph was taken as the first lockdown in the United Kingdom against the coronavirus disease was being eased; most places were still shut but people were beginning to emerge from their isolation.

A landscape photograph isn’t just of a place; it is also of a time. Sometimes that time is simply the time of day, a sunrise or a sunset. Or it could be a fleeting moment as in the light catching Ely Cathedral. Or, as in this case, it could be a unique moment as people of the UK began to emerge from lockdown and venture further out into the world around them again.

To tell a story

The next photograph zooms in on a detail in order to tell a story.

Close-up of a length of barbed wire in front of track leading across a field to a line of trees on the horizon

This photograph was taken somewhere in the Hertfordshire countryside and focuses on a string of barbed wire across a dirt track to some woodland on the horizon. The wire is in sharp relief, in contrast to the track and the woodland which I have thrown out of focus. I wanted the emphasis to be on the foreground to create a sense of a barrier. The background hints at what is beyond. Together I hope they tell a story of exclusion – keep out – this land is private.

To create an impression

A landscape photograph is of a place and a moment. It is also a feeling, an impression, for example the mystery of an ancient burial site.

Bincombe Bumps, a neolithic burial mound, Dorset

This photograph was taken just outside Weymouth in Dorset and shows one of the neolithic burial mounds that stand out on the horizon above the town.

Rather than show the earthworks on the horizon against the sky, I chose to focus in on a detail in the foreground; the flint lying on the grass (similar pieces would have been used to dig out the burial place). In the background a solitary figure walks towards the burial mound, echoing the funeral procession that took place here thousands of years ago.

To make sense of the complex

Above the City of London

A landscape is made up of many elements, an urban landscape even more so. Sometimes the easiest way to make sense of it is to rise above it as I did in this shot of a major junction in the heart of the bustling City of London

To simplify

Finally, sometimes to make sense of what you see you need to remove as many elements as possible

A marker buoy, the sea, the sky and a ripple

A red marker stands just off the coast to warn of some hazard in the water below

A boat heading out of harbour into a mist

A boat heads out to sea from Weymouth Harbour

Sunset over the sea

Sunset over the Aegean Sea

And finally, nothing but the sky

Cloudscape

Street

There are many different ways of photographing your fellow humanity in the street or local environment. One is the “in your face” (almost literally) method where the photographer walks up to an unsuspecting passer-by and photographs them, sometimes using the flash, before walking on, leaving the bemused and sometimes outraged subject behind. It is almost performance art and the person’s response to the intrusion is a part of the photograph.

In the second method the photographer engages with their intended subject before photographing them, asking permission and finding out more about them. In some cases the photographer may actually follow-up with their subject taking more photographs at a later stage, perhaps in the person’s home or work environment. This sort of photography represents a two way process with the subject perhaps gaining as much as the photographer.

The third method sees the photographer as the outsider, an observer standing apart from the people as they move around her. In this case the photographs are taken discretely very often without the subject knowing at all. In this method the photographer is often interested in the patterns and shapes that are created and almost instantly destroyed as people pass them by.

Each method has its own adherents and they can all produce great photographs. More than other genre of photography, though, the personality of the photographer will play a big part in the chosen method. An extrovert is likely to chose the first method, someone who is gregarious and chatty is likely to chose version two, whilst a more introverted person will feel comfortable with the last method. I definitely fall into the latter category!

Here are a few examples of the street photography I have taken over the last few years along with a few of my thoughts on each of the pictures.

Patterns

Busker outside Barcelona Cathedral

This picture was taken in Barcelona and shows a solitary busker outside the gothic cathedral. In the background groups of tourists flow together and fall apart as they look up at the grandeur. My interest was in the busker all on his own but I was also struck by the forms that the groups of tourists made. Over on the left there is a larger group, balanced by a smaller group on the other side of the image and looking up the cathedral. Right at the back there is a group flowing up and down the steps and into the cathedral. An aspect of street photography that fascinates me are the patterns that people make as they move around individually or in groups.

Cropping

Passers-by in a Cork street on a rainy day

This photograph has been cropped. There are some schools of street photographers who might think that’s a bad thing to do. The photograph should capture the entire scene you saw. Sometimes, though you might not be able to get in close enough (especially if you fall into the more “discrete” method of street photography) or you might compose the picture one way but when you look at it later you might see another picture emerge.

This photograph of passers-by on a rainy street in Cork was originally a landscape orientation. Behind the people walking with the umbrella there was another person behind them glancing down an alleyway. In that version there was much more going on. In this cropped version I have focussed in on the face on the mural looking over the top of the brolley which makes a simpler photograph.

Street photography can be instinctive and instantaneous; something ahead of you catches your eye, you raise the camera and press the shutter release. Only later on when you are looking back through the photographs at your leisure, perhaps you see other things that were immediately obvious in the original moment. Or, at least, that is my experience.

That was the case with this photograph. I saw the people walking past the alleyway and took the photograph. Looking again it might have been better to have focussed on the face on the mural rather than the general scene. I may have been able to get a better juxtaposition between the passers-by and the background.

Trombone at the Tolpuddle Martyrs’ Rally Summer 2017

This photograph was also cropped but mostly to remove extraneous detail such as the leg of a man standing on the left and an object lying on the ground at the top right. Whilst cropping the photograph I wanted to ensure I retained certain information such as the RMT (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers) logo on the lapel of the jacket. It helps to tell the story of this photograph; the annual rally of trades unionists that takes place in the small Dorset village of Tolpuddle each year to commemorate the farm workers who in 1834 set up one of the first unions.

This photograph is also a self-portrait. See if you can find me!

Looking indirectly

Picnickers Kings Cross London

The picture of the trombone illustrates another way of viewing people – indirectly – as in a reflection. Here is another example, a reflection of a group picknicking on a summers day at the park that has been created out of industrial land near Kings Cross Station in London. The mirrors in foreground stand on the site of a former gas holder; its cage still exists and you can see the shadow of it at the bottom of the photograph.

Photographing people in reflection adds context to the photograph. I can include more than I might have been able to with a more direct shot. I also think it makes a more arresting image.

Faces in a crowd

New Years Day Parade London 2017

Human beings are instinctively drawn to other people’s faces. It is one of the first things a baby recognises, and we find endless fascination looking at them. This photograph shows part of the crowd at the New Years Parade in London. In the foreground is one of the participants pushing up his baggy costume. He is the centre of attention as he is so incongruous but my focus is also drawn to the woman leaning over the barrier and looking directly at him. Then I begin to see the other people such as the woman scratching her face; or the woman with the selfie stick looking back up the road in anticipation; or the man in the beanie hat towards the back craning to look over the people in front of him.

This photograph was taken very quickly on a dull day so there is a little bit of blur but I think it works. It is another of those photographs where my attention was initially drawn to one thing – the man taking part in the parade as he tries to sort his costume out – and then begin to see so much more later on.

The detail

Touching the image of John of Nepomuk for luck, Charles Bridge, Prague

This last photograph I would like to share with you takes in a detail, immediately, focusing in on someone’s hand as they touch the image of John of Nepomuk for luck. John of Nepomuk was a fourteenth century martyr flung from Charles Bridge in Prague for refusing to divulge the queen’s confessions to her husband, the king. As you can see in this photograph many people have touched his image. There were other photographs to be taken including the crowds that gather around the plaque beneath a statue of the martyr but I chose to focus in on the hand.

This photograph was the only one taken with a smartphone – the new tool of the street photographer?

LRPS

It has been a couple of weeks since I last posted anything. Apologies for that. But I do have exciting news…

I am very proud to have recently been made a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society. The LRPS is the first rung of the organisation’s distinctions. To achieve it the photographer must be able to demonstrate a good technical standard, visual awareness, and an ability to communicate. They must also be able to present their submitted portfolio in a way that gives consideration to its overall appearance.

I thought I would share with you the photographs I submitted to support my application. They are an eclectic bunch ranging from some informal portraits, street photography and a picture of a tea bag! The process of choosing them gave me a chance to think through some of the pictures I have taken over the years. As you should know by now I spend time (rather too much time?) thinking about why I photograph so here are a few of my thoughts on why I took these particular pictures.

Barcelona

I had been in Barcelona for a few days working. On the last day I had a few hours to spare before my flight so I strolled around the city centre one last time. It was a very hot day in midsummer. I noticed these two young men about to disappear from the bright sunshine into the shadows of an alleyway. I was struck by their appearance casually dressed but with very sharp haircuts walking purposely. I also loved the strong colours and the play of shadows and sunlight which I think captured the vibrancy of the city.

Spring light

And I guess I like strong shadows and bright light as the next photograph demonstrates. I loved the patterns made by the shadows of the blinds and how their strong geometrical shapes contrasted with the gentle lines of the the daffodils.

Working out
Resting

The next two photographs are from a series of informal portraits of middle aged to older men engaging in their hobbies. As a person who falls into that age and gender category I wanted to explore how people after a lifetime of work begin to seque into retirement and later life. In these examples by continuing to exercise and keep fit in the gym, and by growing their fruit and vegetables on their allotment. In both cases, continuing to keep active and taking control of their lives whether by ensuring they stay healthy or by providing their own food.

Steps

This photograph was taken on the steps down from St Pauls Cathedral to the Millenium Bridge in London. I had noticed the strong lines of the steps and wanted to capture something that contrasted with them so I waited. I was lucky when these two woman wearing almost identical floral leggings happened to come by. The woman in the foreground is in midstep (her forward foot suspended in the air) which gives the photograph a strong sense of motion. I feel that there are two types of contrast in this image – the strong lines of the steps and the softer floral patterns of the leggings; and then the steps’ sense of permanence and stillness contrasting with the motion of the moving legs.

The face of an ancient yew tree

The first black and white picture is of the allegedly oldest tree in London, a yew tree in the churchyard at Totteridge on the very edges of the city. It is believed to be at least 2000 years old. The photograph was taken towards the end of the Spring lockdown in the UK and I was tentatively cycling a little further (cycling outdoors was always permitted in the UK as long as you did not overstretch yourself). I spent some time looking and feeling the tree before I took this photograph. I wanted to get a sense of the texture of the tree but also of its age. It seemed to me that this was a face that through the march of time had seen so much and would see so much more. It gave me a sense of hope for the future. In post production I lightened the bokeh behind the hole on the right to add a reassuring twinkle to its eye.

Sometimes the best photographs can be made in the most familiar territory especially if you look at in a different way. This street light and building are just up the road from where I live.

Close-up of a used teabag on a tea spoon about to be dropped into a food recycling caddy

And sometimes it can be the details that tell a story. Here’s one of food waste and recycling; that’s a teabag about to be dropped into a recycling caddy. I wanted to include a close-up in my portfolio but didnt want to choose a more obvious subject.

The Holloway Road

Another close to home photograph. This was taken one night on the Holloway Road in north London. It’s the beginning of the A1, a major road north to Scotland. As you may recall I have always had a fascination with roads and where they might lead.

And the final picture is the gravestones stacked around the Hardy Tree in Old St Pancras churchyard near Kings Cross Station. Before he made his name as poet and the author of the Wessex Tales, Thomas Hardy was an architect living and working in London. At the time the railway was being built out of Kings Cross straight through the churchyard. Hardy’s task was to oversee the reburial in one larger grave of the departed dug up to make way for the new railway. He had the gravestones of the rehoused dead encircle an ash tree in the church yard. Many years later, Hardy wrote a poem called the Levelled Churchyard which is partly about his experience in London. I have been drawn back to this strange entwined tree many times but this is my favourite photograph I have taken of it so far.

The subjects in the pictures I ultimately chose include quirky and different viewpoints, trying to see things in a different way and seeking out order in the bustling and ever changing streets. I also, as you could imagine, I chose pictures that were very personal to me, particularly the Hardy Tree.

Becoming an LRPS is a part of my ongoing journey as a photographer. I hope to continue to learn and to share my experiences. Hope that some of you enjoy the journey too.

Thanks for reading.

Other people’s eyes

We should always remember that a picture is also made up of the person who looks at it. This is very, very important.”

Robert Doisneau

To take a photograph is to begin a conversation. We decide what we want to say (the subject matter) and how we want to say it (the composition).

But any conversation involves at least two people. When we take a photograph we are usually trying to say something to someone. It could be to our friends saying, “Hey, didn’t we have a great time on that holiday?”; or it could be to a larger audience saying something more profound such as “The Hand of Man”.

It could be just to evoke a response in the viewer. A photograph is essentially ambiguous – it can mean different things to different viewers – and once a photograph has been shared it takes on a life of its own. The conversation becomes disjointed with perhaps only snatches of words heard. It may be that the response is not what the photographer intended. Very often the audience may come up with their own ideas of what has been said. However they respond it is important to remember, as Doisneau said, that the person viewing your photograph is an important part of the picture.

One way to experience this is to hold an exhibition of your works and view the audience in action.

Making an exhibition of myself

I have been lucky enough to have photographs appear in a few exhibitions including a couple of solo shows. It is particularly interesting to observe how the audience respond. I may have my own views on the photographs and the reasons for displaying them but the viewers could have their own agenda. This is what I found when I decided to exhibit some of my photographs in the town I grew up in, Weymouth, on the south coast of England.

The subject of the exhibition was an old railway that runs along the harbourside from the station to the ferry port. In its day, it would take passengers and freight through the streets of the town. As a child, I can remember trains trundling past the houses, so high up the passengers could almost see into the upstairs windows! Sadly, no trains have run on the line for more than twenty years but the railway tracks remained, running down the middle of the road; a trap for the unwary but mostly ignored. At the time of writing (October 2020, much of it is finally being lifted). I took my photographs in 2017 and was lucky to capture it before it disappeared.

Once I put the photographs together I decided to put some of them on public display.

I hired the gallery space in the local library (only a short distance from the old railway) for a week. Along with the photographs and a few leaflets I left a visitors’ book for comments. This was the first time I had ever attempted anything like this so I was intrigued to see how people responded.

The gallery itself was in a public space so the audience could be any visitors to the library, and not necessarily there to view the photographs themselves. I publicised the event and so some of the visitors did come in purely to see the exhibition but most of them simply wandered over to look at them, as they went about their other activities in the library.

First night nerves

I visited the library most days of the exhibition. Occasionally I would be on hand to talk to the visitors but mostly I would observe from a distance, watching nervously, as people approached the photographs. Sometimes they would walk past them in a matter of seconds, maybe pausing to read the blurb I had written on the subject; sometimes they would pause for a few moments to take in all the pictures, decide it wasn’t for them and then walk on. Others did linger a little longer, moving from photograph to photograph and stopping at each of them. I would discretely time how long they spent at each photograph. The more engaged would move backwards and forwards, returning to previously visited photographs once or twice. Then they would walk over to the visitors’ book.

Receiving feedback

After an appropriate period, I would wander over to take a look. To be honest most of the comments were complimentary about my work. What I did find was that a lot of people used the opportunity to vent their feelings about the old railway itself. Essentially there were two camps; those who wanted it ripped out because it represents a hazard, and those who wanted to see it stay as a symbol of the town’s history. Both groups could be vociferous. Extensive use of SHOUTY CAPITAL LETTERS was made.

A life of their own

Following the exhibition some of my friends expressed dismay at comments they thought were irrelevant. I was more sanguine. I had my own reason for taking the photographs but once I had chosen to exhibit them that was irrelevant and the images took on a life of their own. The photographs were on display to provoke a response. My audience had every right to interpret them and to respond to them on their own terms. This also included them using the opportunity to share with me their own experiences of the railway as it was in its heyday.

Once I had chosen to exhibit my photographs they had taken on a life of their own.

As well as a photographer I am also a trainer working in the corporate sector. One of the things I learned very early in that job was about receiving feedback as it helped me understand how people had interpreted what I had taught them. As a trainer, my role is to listen and, if necessary present the information in a different way to aid learning. As a photographer publicly displaying my works I was doing something similar, providing a space for the audience to respond in their own way.

The exhibition was entitled “Fading Lines” which gives an idea of how I interpreted the images. I have included a few visitor comments to indicate how some of the audience responded. One or two did recognise what I was trying to do but others used the opportunity to protest in favour or against the railway, or to reminisce.

The sadness of Weymouth shows in these photos

Visitor to “Fading Lines” exhibition, Weymouth, 2017

Keep the rail lines as a nod to Weymouth’s history. Would be great to have a modern tram line to use rather than cars! Keep old Weymouth history alive. Thanks!

Visitor to Fading Lines exhibition, Weymouth, 2017

Track lines [are] dangerous … we are not using them [and] they [are] putting lives at risk

Visitor to “Fading Lines” exhibition, Weymouth, 2017

Such nostalgia conjured up in a few rail tracks reminding me of a brighter more carefree days.

Visitor to “Fading Lines” exhibition, Weymouth, 2017

I used to work in [a nearby] restaurant in the ‘70s. Folk would book tables so as to be there when the train passed on its way to the ferry.

Visitor to “Fading Lines” exhibition, Weymouth, 2017

An earlier version of this blog appears at http://taylored-training.co.uk/confessions-of-an-exhibitionist/

Cycling

The world is a changed place. Once there was normal and now there really isn’t.

As people adjust to the new uncertainties there are a few bright spots. One of these for me has been the growth of cycling. According to recent research in London there has been a 120% year on year increase.

The resurgence in cycling across the UK (and elsewhere in the world) has been in response to the Covid 19 pandemic. During the lockdown in the UK and some countries cycling remained a permitted form of outdoor activity and, as motor traffic levels plummeted, old bicycles were dragged from the back of the shed or the garage.

With the easing of restrictions people remain reluctant to use public transport where they may be in close confiment with others and have started looking for alternatives. For some they have started using their cars more resulting in massive increase in traffic and the resultant pollution. Many, however, having caught the cycling bike, continue to ride their bikes.

Efforts are being made by national and local governments in the UK and elsewhere to make the roads safer for cyclists by taking up road space to create protected bike lanes. However these will take time and they will not exist everywhere.

In the meantime, there are a number of things cyclists can do to help keep themselves safer on the roads. As you may have noticed from some of the postings on this blog I am a regular cyclist. A little while ago, drawing upon my experience as a cycling instructor, I wrote about the process of learning to ride a bicycle if you have never had opportunity to do so as a child. This time I want to write about the next stage – riding your bicycle safely on the road.

Here here are my top four tips:

  1. Be ready to stop
  2. Other people on the road are people too
  3. Ride out
  4. Ride on

Note: I was a cycle instructor working in the UK. The information below relates to the practice of cycling in that country. If you are reading this in another country you may be subject to different regulations.

Be ready to stop

There are two things you can do to be ready to stop:

First of all pay attention to what’s coming up ahead; not just on the road but on the pavements and in side streets as well. There might be a person standing on the kerb twenty yards down the road; do they look like they might be about to step out into the street and into your path?

This brings us to the second thing to do; cover your brakes. Keep your fingers over the brake levers as much as possible so that you are ready to stop at any moment. It won’t be practical all the time but hands over the brake levers should become your default position when riding along.

Other people on the road are people too

It’s very easy to forget that there is somebody in that car (we haven’t got to self driving cars just yet!). How often do you talk about cars rather than the drivers operating them? One of the ways you can keep yourself safe is to be aware that there are other human beings, many of them with the same concerns you have irrespective of their form of transport.

How does knowing this keep you safe?

Instead of treating the road like a moving obstacle course treat it like a crowd of people you need to negotiate with to be able to proceed. At the heart of this is communication with your fellow road users.

There are two things you need to be able to do to communicate with other road users:

The first one is to be able to look over your shoulders to see who is there and to look directly at the driver behind you. There is an argument that a mirror could do the same thing but a small slightly wobbly reflection of the car behind does not offer the same communication than if you look directly into the driver’s eyes.

The second is to tell other road users your intentions. Typically this will be when you want to turn left or right. To do this, raise your arm staight out to your left or right side. You should combine this with first looking over your shoulder (a mirror, signal, maneouvre for cyclists). It’s worth pointing out that you only really need to signal if there is somebody to signal to. If there is nobody around then there is no point signalling but do keep looking as you make your maneouvre.

Ride out

Use the roadspace you need to cycle on. Don’t stick to the side of the road but ride out. This one can be quite scary when you try it for the first time. It can also seem counter-intuitive. “Surely,” you think, “I am safer over here than in the middle of the lane.”

Remember a little earlier that person standing on the kerb who might have been about to step out without looking? If you ride closer to the kerb you are more likely to hit him – if you are further out you will probably miss him entirely. Also he might have seen you earlier – when you cross the road you tend to scan the middle where most of the traffic is, not the side.

Riding out avoids pedestrians stepping off the kerb, car doors flung open, and cars pulling out from parking bays and from side roads.

It also makes you more visible to drivers behind you which can be a bit scary as you might think you are in their way and they might try and run you down. However, the likelihood of a homicidal maniac coming up behind is very small compared to a momentarily inattentive driver opening their door in your path. Also, if you have been paying attention to what’s coming up behind you then you will know well in advance and can take appropriate action, moving to the side where it is safe to do so to let them pass.

Ride on

The final bit of advice? Keep cycling. The roads are busier now and at the time of writing we are into the autumn; the days are shortening. But the most important thing you can do is not to give up.

if you need help find an accredited cycle instructor who can offer one to one training on the road (in the UK local authoritiesoften often provide this service – check out the Bikeability website for more information). As an instructional designer I once created a couple of short online courses on checking your bicycle and filtering through traffic which you can access at the links below.

Checking your bicycle

Filtering through traffic

Other online training may be available but the most useful thing is to get out there and practice.

We are living in strange times when everything seems different and there is much talk of making the world anew. You can help do that simply by continuing to ride your bicycle.

Fading lines

News arrives from the town of Weymouth on the south coast of England: the old railway track that ran through the centre of town is being lifted. The line was originally built in 1865 as an extension from the station to the harbour. It was initially used for freight and in its heyday it was used to transport fresh fruit and vegetable unloaded at the dockside to the rest of the country.

Later passenger services were introduced to serve the ferries to the Channel Islands and France. I can recall watching huge diesel locomotives pulling carriages full of excited holidaymakers at a walking pace through the town to the ferry port.

Nothing has run on the line since 1999 and now (September 2020) large parts of the track are being lifted. Since its decline the track had become controversial between those who wanted to see it kept as a heritage railway and others who thought it a traffic hazard and should be removed.

Now it is going.

In 2017 I walked the route of the old railway (it’s about a mile or so) and photographed what remained at that point. I had a small exhibition in the library in Weymouth not far from the track. You can read a bit more about the exhibition here.

To commemorate the moment of its removal I have put together a short video of the photographs I took, showing the line in all its faded glory

Ashwell Church

Today I was cycling in the Bedfordshire/Cambridgeshire borders, and visited the church in Ashwell. Services are taking place again now and it was good to hear music drifting across the churchyard as I wandered around.

As usual I was looking for the quiet corners and I found it with this upturned wheelbarrow on a compost heap. It reminded me that there is a cycle of life continuing in this place.

The church at Ashwell has added poignancy in this day and age. It contains some graffiti on one of the walls inside. I was not able to view it today but, from Wikipedia, the text says:

“MCT Expente miseranda ferox, violenta Superest plebs pessima testis, MCCCL”

which translates as:

“1350 Miserable, wild, distracted 1350
The dregs of the mob alone survive to witness”

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_St_Mary_the_Virgin,_Ashwell#Ashwell_Graffiti

1350 was in the period when the Black Death swept across Europe. It is a reminder that beneath the seemingly tranquil countryside something darker lurks.

A corner of Ashwell Church in Hertfordshire

Chesil Beach

Many of my photographs are taken along the beautiful Dorset coast and one of the most glorious places to photograph is the Chesil Beach. It’s eighteen miles (twenty-nine kilometres) long and stretches along the Jurassic Coast from the Isle of Portland in the southeast all the way to West Bay further northwest (the latter better known these days as Broadchurch, the television drama series).

I have walked parts of the beach many times, particularly the Portland end, and what has always attracted me are the pebbles. They are worn smooth by the sea and the wind, and sometimes come in beautiful colours. It is said that a sailor landing upon the beach can tell where they are by the size of the pebbles. At the Portland end they are much larger than at West Bay.

These photographs were taken at the Portland end as I trudged along the beach looking down. As you can see I have done a little bit of manipulation to enhance their colours (!).

All the photographs are available in my store on nuMonday as a set of four coasters. Click here to find out how you can buy them.

Self

When you look at yourself in the mirror what do you see?  Perhaps not a great deal; just enough to avoid cutting yourself shaving or smudging your make-up. Next time, take a moment to look a little longer at that face looking back at you, those eyes. Are you seeing yourself as others see you? Or can you see someone else, the person inside you? Sometimes when I find myself staring into the mirror it is almost as if I can see two of me; the person that other people see and the person I think I am.  

Once upon a time we could not know ourselves in this way. We looked through our eyes and we could see various parts of our body but our faces were hidden from us. We might catch a blurred reflection in water or on a burnished surface but it only gave a hint of ourselves. And there were very few means to capture that likeness. It would be a time consuming business to sit for a portrait, a process available only to a wealthy few wishing to make a statement.  

Now, what was once mysterious has become common place. Each morning we stop and look in the mirror to shave, put on makeup, check our hair is okay.  And we all have the means to make our own portraits anytime we like.

How did we travel from an unrecognised self to putting ourselves centre stage? This is a short history of that journey from an imperfect reflection to a multitude of likenesses, from the mystical to the mundane.

Mirrors

… the mirror is a visual bridge between past, present and future.”

Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World, 2015 p38

The earliest mirrors were still water. The first man-made mirrors, 8000 years ago, were polished obsidian, a volcanic stone. Later mirrors were made of polished copper or bronze.  They would have taken time and effort to create and so would presumably have been the preserve of a handful of the wealthy; these objects’ status in society can be seen by their appearance on funerary imagery. There were simpler mirrors which were nothing more than a bowl of water but otherwise the opportunity to observe oneself was limited. In any case, whilst the evidence suggests some early mirrors were of a reasonable quality they still gave limited vision of the observer. For many early people their own reflection would have been an imperfect image.

Despite or because of their imperfections, early mirrors had a role beyond assisting with shaving or putting on make-up. They were seen as reflecting more than just the person’s outer appearance; it was believed that they also could reveal their inner self or soul. That was why it was thought bad luck to break them; you could be damaging your own soul. Some traditions are concerned that a person’s soul upon death or sleeping may become trapped in a mirror – that’s why in some traditions they may be covered during a period of mourning or at night to prevent this.

If a soul could be held within a mirror then the mirror also offered a means of connecting with the dead and, by extension, looking into the past  and the future.  Processes known as  catoptromancy or enoptromancy were used to divine the future. The mirror provided a link between the past, present and future.

Mirrors and our own reflections are more magical than we think.

Portraits

“For most of the modern era, the possibility of seeing an image of oneself was limited to the wealthy and the powerful.”

Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World, 2015 p328

Mirrors give a transient view of ourselves. A portrait captures our likeness forever and this was recognised from antiquity onward.  In ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome wall paintings and statues depicted pharaohs and emperors, often alongside gods, emphasising their high status. The same desire for the reflected divine glory continued into the Christian era. These could be in the form of donor portraits where the artist would insert their client into a biblical scene such as the Nativity or the Crucifixion.

With the decline of overtly religious iconography portraiture was used to emphasise the absolute power of the monarch. Many artists became more than tradesmen, turning into trusted servants of the king. The classic example of the power portrait would have been that of King Henry VIII painted by Hans Holbein.

With the expansion of the middle classes portraiture moved downwards but it was still the preserve of the very wealthy keen to mark their place in society. For the remainder there were very limited means for a likeness of oneself  to capture. They continued to rely upon their reflected image in a mirror.

Self Portraits

“The moment when a man comes to paint himself – he may do it only two or three times in a lifetime, perhaps never – has in the nature of things a special significance.”

Lawrence Gowing, quoted https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/27/self-portrait-culture-history-james-hall-review-profoundly-human

From early on, artists began to appear in their own work. These would be typically religious scenes and the artist would include themselves in a group of people, for example Piero della Francesca added himself as a sleeping Roman soldier in his fresco, Resurrection (1463). This may have been done for practical purposes; the artist was available to act as a subject for his work.  

Gradually the artist began to creep into portraits of others. This is most notable in Las Meninas, (1656) painted by Diego Velázquez where he is seen standing next to his easel painting the picture we are looking at. The ostensible subject of the picture, King Philip IV of Spain, and his wife, Mariana are seen reflected in a mirror at the very back of the picture, apparently posing for the painting Velazquez is working on. They appear to be standing where we as the viewer stand looking at the picture.  Alongside are members of the court and most of these are looking towards the King and Queen, or us.    

The most prolific self-portraitist was probably Rembrandt. There a are probably forty self-portraits attributed to his own hand as well as many sketches and drawings.  Sometimes this was because he was the nearest available model (and cheapest). On other occasions he may have been recording his own expressions for use in later projects. In any case we have a record of his changing appearance throughout his career.  Like many other painters he would have worked in front of a mirror and there are suggestions that he occasionally had to rework his portraits to show him the right way and not as if he were a reflection.

A large number of women artists produced self-portraits. A notable example was Madame Lebrun working in the 18th Century as a portraitist; a self-portrait was one method of showing off her skills to potential clients. It could also be argued it provided with an opportunity to present her own self-image in an era when the image of women was filtered through a masculine perspective. One of her self-portraits includes her daughter; she wanted to show herself in a positive light as an artist (a worker) and a mother.

The photographic portrait

“… our loathsome society rushed , like Narcissus , to contemplate its trivial image on the metallic plate . A form of lunacy , an extraordinary fanaticism , took hold of these new sun worshippers.”

Charles Baudelaire 1859

The invention of photography in the early nineteenth century industrialised the portrait process and began the democratisation of the self-portrait. A French photographer, Andre Disderi, patented the carte de visite, a photograph printed on thin paper and mounted on card. He also came up with the idea of taking eight photographs with a single negative driving down costs further. Sitters would be brought into a naturally lit studio, posed with a few props, and told to hold still for a while as their photograph was taken. Once done, the next in line would be ushered in to undergo the same process.

All this industry met a need – there was a craze to be photographed, to keep a likeness of yourself and your family, or to share them with others.  It has been suggested that this could come from the pleasure we experience when seeing people we recognise. Arguably our very survival is based upon that recognition; as babies we learn to recognise our parents and gain pleasure when we see their faces. It might be the same process runs through the desire to be photographed?

The photographic self-portrait

“I am an African chief, in a western chair with a leopard skin cover, and a bouquet of sunflowers. I am all the African chiefs who have sold their continent to the white man. I am saying: we had our own systems, our own rulers, before you came. It’s about the history of the white man and the black man in Africa.”

https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jun/19/photographer-samuel-fosso-best-shot

As with painting, the self-portrait became popular with photography. Early examples included the American photographer, Robert Cornelius, taken in 1839 and the French photographer, Hippolyte Bayard  “Self-portrait of a drowned man” (1839-40). He was the developer of an alternative photographic process that was eclipsed by the daguerreotype. In his self-portrait, he presents himself as a drowned man.

A self-portrait can be empowering; it allows the subject to take control of how they would like to present themselves. This can be particularly relevant for certain groups who have often been the subject but rarely in control of their appearance. Two recent examples of this are Cindy Shermanand Samuel Fosso.

Both photographers have used the genre to subvert how they are often viewed in mainstream society: for example, Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” – a series of self-portraits showing herself as a typical character from  Hollywood Movies, subverting the genre to take control of her own image and that of other women as they have depicted in male dominated movie industry; or Samuel Fosso’s Self-portraits  of himself as a westerner would see an African man.

The selfie

“Because it draws on the long history of the self-portrait, it’s likely that the selfie in one form or another will continue to play a role in shaping how to see people for a long time to come.”

Nicholas Mirzoeff, How to See the World, 2015 p69

That leads us on to the much maligned “selfie”. On the one hand we are all artists now in control of how we portray ourselves. On the other hand our experiences of the world around us can only be meaningful if we have inserted ourselves into it (sometimes inappropriately and occasionally at great risk) and snapped ourselves.

The selfie has become ubiquitous. back in 2016 Google reported that 24 billion selfies were posted to Google Photos. That was one platform four years ago. The number has surely grown by now, along with the expansion of photo sharing apps such as Instagram, Snapchat and more). https://blog.google/products/photos/google-photos-one-year-200-million/  

Research suggests that the bulk of selfies are taken by women (http://selfiecity.net/), they tend to have a very limited lifespan and they are often used as a visual form of communication; the mobile phone created for speech and text is now more frequently used to share images.

This brief history has shown that over the millenia we have moved from the mysterious and barely seen to the mundane and ubiquitous but along the way we have begun to take control of how we portray ourselves. Whilst many people bemoan the rise of the selfie, it should be celebrated as a means of self-portrayal.