Portrait of Santa Claus as a young man …….. and some reflections on “being a photographer”

Abandoned quarry, near Penmaenmawr
Abandoned quarry, near Penmaenmawr

During my coastal explorations of 2011 I visited some phenomenal abandoned quarries above Penmaenmawr in north Wales. The workings were so extensive and the buildings so well preserved that the description “Blaenau Ffestiniog – by – the – Sea” seemed quite appropriate. I came across this human likeness on a quarry face and during the sorting and processing stages the extensive beard and bushy eyebrows reminded me of our friendly seasonal visitor.

I’m very aware that this is my first post for almost exactly two months. The truth is I’ve done very little photography since my trip to Norfolk in early October. I’ve pottered down to Aberystwyth to watch the starling roost on several occasions when conditions looked promising, but barely pressed the shutter in anger. A trip down to the Somerset Levels in November to photograph the same birds also proved disappointing. While they were present in huge numbers there was nothing that could possibly described as a display to photograph. On the several lovely days during a much-extended autumn I was otherwise engaged in painting the outside of the house before the scaffolding was taken away. So it has been a bit of a fallow period, photographically speaking.

Not that that is necessarily a bad thing. It can feel frustrating to have to channel one’s creative energies in other directions, or to subsume them altogether. But it feels good to have a social life again even if I’m not really a party person. And when the muse strikes again, one feels that one’s outlook may have shifted a little in the meantime and thus one’s creative life will have evolved.

In the early months of 1994, I think it was, it would be fair to say that my life was in a bit of a crisis. My house was undergoing major renovation work – well, more or less demolished and then rebuilt – and I was lodging with a friend. Shortly before that a relationship had ended and I put it partly down to the fact that I identified myself firstly as a photographer and secondly as a more rounded human being. Photographers (and others) often describe themselves as “passionate” about their activities and this is usually accepted as being ‘a good thing’. But replace that adjective with “obsessive” and see how perceptions change. I made the conscious decision to stop being a photographer for a few months and see what it felt like. I did nothing photography related that winter other than what was absolutely necessary to keep my business afloat. There was no doubt then that much of my identity revolved around being successful as a photographer. I suppose I was at an early stage in a career, and it probably really mattered. Over the years I have mellowed a little, but I still feel the same way in many respects. The buzz I get from a good session out in the landscape is still unbeatable. At the same time it can be difficult to accept that the kind of recognition that I feel I deserve has eluded me; and that having recently picked up my bus pass, nothing is likely to change in that respect.

But back to the present. Winter in Wales tends to be wet, windy and often rather dismal. Most of my location work is done with the aid of a camper van; I’m on my third now and it’s absolutely essential to my way of working. As autumn progresses it becomes more and more of an ordeal to spend the night in it. I can bear the odd night with sub-zero temperatures (well, just sub-zero anyway) especially if I can start out in a warm van. But returning to a cold van after a day in the field with the knowledge that there may then be up to sixteen hours before sunrise does not fill me with joy. Nor does driving to the nearest town and paying through the nose for a hotel room which in all likelihood will come with an inflexible breakfast time.

And my final excuse? I do not believe we have progressed too far as a species from the stage where hibernation came naturally to us. We may not now be huddled round a camp fire at the back of a cave, venturing out only when it was light and sleeping the rest of the time. But I feel that winter still comes with the opportunity, like it or not, to settle down in front of the wood-burner and ponder the deeper and possibly darker aspects of one’s life, the universe and our relationship with it. Maybe, at the turning of the year, long before the Christian era, our ancestors left their caves for a big party. They knew that, in one sense at least, things could only get better. There is little doubt that our own Christmas and New Year festivities relate back to earlier times when the winter solstice was a time for major clebration. Which brings me right back to Santa Claus….

With Seasons Greetings to all (both) my readers.

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