Tea and Brasso (Part two)

Boston Lodge b&w No 1.

My first attempts at photography in 1968 (see Part One) were in black and white, naturally enough. Colour photography was a bit of specialist pastime in those days and the materials were of rather poor quality. I had the use of the school darkroom and experienced the excitement of watching my prints slowly becoming visible in a tray of developer. I have always felt that b&w was a suitable medium for railway photography in the last days of steam. There was nothing glamourous at all in the subject matter and arguably very little that colour could add. The school darkroom was demolished very soon after I started using it, however, and thus ended my first stab at photography.

Boston Lodge b&w No 2.

My father continued togive me his old cameras as he upgraded to something more up-to-date. So I also became a Praktica user. By the early 1970’s, colour materials must have become easier to get hold of, and develop-and-print packages more affordable, because I never went into a darkroom again. It was colour negative all the way for me.  The film went to Boots, or, more likely, Max Spielmann for p&p. At that time  I was just messing around with cameras really, just having fun. I can remember a game I played with another student where we pursued each other around Nottingham city centre, each one trying to take photographs of the other without being seen.   Although I gradually took my photography more seriously it never occurred to me to use anything but colour. My philosophy was simple : we live in a colour world, so why photograph it in b&w? Most serious photographers, on the other hand, would have been using monochrome. One exception was Ernst Haas, whose crowning achievement (first published in 1971) was the Creation, produced entirely in colour.

Boston Lodge b&w No 3.

But, to coin a phrase, I digress. Most of the photographers that have inspired me (Ernst Haas, Paul Wakefield, Joe Cornish, Chris Gomersall, and others) have worked entirely in colour,  while one in particular only did so in her later years. I refer to Fay Godwin, who I have already mentioned in this blog a number of times – here, for example.  Her best known and most influential work was done in monochrome in the 1970’s and 80’s. I began to wonder if its particular power could have resulted from the use of monochrome. Perhaps the messages she was trying to convey came over more clearly without a sheen of colour to distract the mind/eye? So I began to think about doing b&w conversions of my own originals. Just for starters, I decided to convert some images from my recent visit to the Ffestiniog Railway at Boston Lodge. As I mentioned above I have always felt that b&w was ideal for steam railway photography.  Only those aged 60 or more will personally remember the last days of steam and the photographs from the era, which were inevitably monochrome. It could be that there is an element of nostalgia involved but I suspect it is more than that.

Boston Lodge b&w No4

Last weekend I was up in north Wales and frustrated yet again by some dismal (but very typical) August weather.  On a still and humid Sunday morning there were patches of mid-level cloud wrapping themselves around hilltops and mountain-sides. The landscape photographer might take some spectacular images if the sun broke through a broken layer of high level cloud. The latter looked thinner at the coast so I headed down to the Cob at Porthmadog; the view to Snowdon from its southern end is an iconic one.  Long distance visibility from there was limited, unfortunately, but just a few meters away in the other direction lay Boston Lodge, and it looked stunning! As the railwaymen prepared the engines for the new day’s work I had another short session photographing them “contre-jour” before the sun disappeared completely.

 

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Tea and brasso.

Early morning at Boston Lodge.

I first picked up a camera as a schoolboy. My father gave me his old rangefinder after he bought himself his first Praktica.  He had introduced me to trainspotting a few years earlier and 1968 saw the dying days of steam power on main-line railways in Britain. I spent as much time as I could that summer travelling around northern England to see and photograph the last steam engines still in operation.  On the last day of steam – 15th August if I remember correctly – I officially gave up trainspotting and put my Locoshed book away for the last time. With the photographic vision and skills I now have how I wish that I could travel back in time to those days when grimy and unloved steam engines could still be found.

I have since then retained a broad interest in railways, and Wales has an abundance of preserved narrow-gauge lines. In fact, Porthmadog is the hub of quite a narrow-guage steam network with the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland lines terminating there. Last week I decided I was man enough to do some railway photography again: man enough because I needed to overcome my concerns about being seen as a train nerd. So one evening recently I wandered in to the Boston Lodge works/engine shed of the Ffestiniog Railway as one of the last engines of the day was being “put to bed”.  I gingerly approached the railwaymen to enquire about getting access the following morning, and was told that I would need to speak to the Works Supervisor who would be on duty from 7 a.m. I was there at half-past seven, only to find no-one in the office but railwaymen (and women) preparing several engines for the day’s duties. I couldn’t help noticing several people polishing the engines furiously – something that you would never have seen on British Rail in the 1960’s.

Once I did find someone to report in to I was surprised at how relaxed the regime was for visitors – “Oh just sign in, and mind where you’re putting your feet” I was told. Very refreshingly there was no  “elf’n safety” paranoia here. I cautiously began exploring the sheds and sidings. If you’re interested in steam engines you will know this already but the first job in the morning is to light the fire. Once this is done the engine is driven gently out into the open for the fire to take hold and steam pressure to build up, and for more polishing to be done. Everyone had a tin of Brasso to hand, and there was a cupboard full of the stuff inside the shed. Mugs of tea were also well in evidence. In the midst of a downpour, a swallow chased a butterfly in the grime and smoke of the engine shed.

I was casually looking into the cab of one of the engines when the fireman leapt in through the opposite door. Although dressed in grimy dark blue overalls, like most of the men, this was clearly a woman. I asked what the attraction was for her in firing a steam engine – “it’s just something completely different to what I normally do” she said. And what was that? “Oh, I’m a teaching assistant in a school for autistic children”.  She paused for a few seconds. ” Although, come to think of it, compared to some of the volunteers we get here, there isn’t actually that much difference.” Train nerds, you see. I saw her later, at lunchtime, having worked all morning, on her second round trip of the day. Her teeth gleamed white from a face caked in sweat and coal dust. “One of the best fireman on the railway”, said the driver.

Here’s one I prepared earlier – Taking on water at Tan-y-bwlch station

The main attraction at Boston Lodge was, of course, the presence of the engines. The railway staff must have been accustomed to railway photographers, though, because they seemed quite unselfconscious subjects themselves.  It probably helped to have a chat: one driver – in real life an English teacher at a school in Switzerland – was back at the Ffestiniog for his thirty-second year, while another man told me proudly that it was his fourty-ninth year as a fireman. One pointed out an osprey hovering over the Glaslyn river as it hunted for fish to take back to its family a few miles away. I found I was often able to include them and in fact, some human interest really seemed to lift the images. The results were far from traditional “steam engine at 45 degrees”and one could say were more social documentary in nature. I have a feeling there is more to be done on the Ffestiniog.

 

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Bird/land rides again

Bird/land is showing again this summer, at Plas Brondanw, between Penrhyndeudraeth and Beddgelert in the heart of the Snowdonia National Park.

Set in a stunning location, Plas Brondanw was the home of the late Clough Williams Ellis – creator of Portmeirion,  the surreal Italian-style village on the Dwyryd estuary. The gardens at Plas Brondanw have been open to the public for many years but this is the first year the house has opened its doors. It is a very different venue to those at Machynlleth and Aberystwyth. Each room contains maybe 6 or 8 works, punctuated by windows which overlook the gardens and the surrounding landscape. But I think they work well there.

The official opening is on Sunday 30th – details above – and I will be giving a talk on Sunday August 13th, at 2.30 pm. Places for both events genuinely are limited. Opening hours for the exhibition are Wednesday to Sunday, 10.30 am until 4 pm. The exhibition closes on August 28th.

Edit: In the first paragraph I wrote that Plas Brondanw is in the heart of the National Park. It certainly feels as if it is, but in fact it’s on its edge. North and east of Porthmadog the National Park boundary diverts inland to exclude the village of Penrhyndeudraeth and the low-lying farmland drained when the Cob (the causeway to Porthmadog) was built just over two hundred years ago. One can only imagine the exquisite beauty of the area before it was drained. Even now at big spring tides on still days the mountains are reflected beautifully in the flooded Glaslyn River. And who knows, in these times of sea-level rise and “managed retreat” the day could come again when this land is fully tidal again.

 

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A silver-studded Saturday

Male silver-studded blues, the Great Orme

I didn’t mention it in my last post but the van broke down on the way back from Pembrokeshire. It had been feeling and sounding particularly rough the whole journey and a few miles south of Aberystwyth it started to become difficult to engage gears. I nursed it back up the long hill to our house in second, and rolled it down to the garage the following day. It is still there, 12 days later; virtually untouched. The garage proprietor still doesn’t know if it is the clutch that has gone or the gearbox; so it’s either going to an expensive repair or a horribly expensive one.

He loaned me his “courtesy car” over the weekend – an X-reg Proton. Quite a comedown, as you can imagine, and you definitely can’t cook or sleep in it. Nevertheless it got me up to Llandudno and back at the weekend, where I was planning to visit the Great Orme. This is a massive limestone headland overlooking Llandudno with long stretches of white or pale grey cliffs facing in all directions. Its grassland is home to many interesting and rare plants and animals, including the silver-studded blue butterfly, which is uncommon nationally but appears in huge numbers on the Orme. The last week in June is supposed to be the time to see them. They were certainly widespread and numerous but not occurring in quite the clouds I had been hoping for /expecting.

It’s a long time since I have done any insect photography and I don’t have any specialist equipment for it. I was relying on my 70 – 200 f4 zoom which has a closest focus of four feet. The silver-studded blue is a tiny butterfly, well under an inch across, so even at maximum magnification an individual was very small in the viewfinder. But on the plus side the lens is very good optically and I knew I would be able to crop down into the image significantly. The butterfly is very skittish when the sun is shining so getting much closer than four feet might have been tricky anyway. So as far is gear was concerned it was a case of swings and roundabouts.

Male (left) and female silver-studded blues

What about the butterfly, though? The Orme silver-studded is a distinct subspecies, (“plebejus argus caernensis”) appearing about a month earlier than those elsewhere in the UK. The males and females are completely different in appearance; the males blue, the females largely brown – but far from dull as the smaller picture shows. In bright sunshine they seem to indulge in a great deal of apparently random flight – a far cry from the graceful and purposeful behaviour of our larger and more familiar species. It can only be down to one thing – sex. The males are desperate to find females, and copulating couples seem to be everywhere. But in more subdued light they tend to stay put, exposing their uppersides to whatever light is available. And during heavy cloud cover they just seem to shrink away into the vegetation and disappear. It is said that they rarely move more than 20 metres away from their place of birth at any time during their lifetimes.

The adult butterflies don’t seem to pose prettily on flowerheads to any great extent; anywhere will do. So the photographer needs patience to obtain that perfect composition. I struggled at first, I must admit. But as thin cloud covered the sun and they became less active, I came across a little congregation of five males on bramble flowers. This was the opportunity I had been waiting for. Even here I managed to take some rubbish. Depth of field was very limited  and it was easy to focus on a butterfly’s body and find the edge of its wing was out of focus. Backgrounds were often untidy. I really, really wanted to do some wide-aperture, out-of-focus-background type images but it was a lost cause. I needed as much D-o-F as possible to get even this tiny butterfly in focus.

The butterfly’s life-cycle is extraordinary: from the moment the eggs hatch until the adults are ready to fly the caterpillars are tended by black ants. The ants carry the caterpillars into their nests and protect and look after them.  Even when the caterpillars emerge to feed the ants accompany them. In return the ants feed on a sugary solution excreted by the caterpillars. The more I learn about nature the more complex and intertwined it all becomes. A web of life, indeed.

 

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As seen on Springwatch…..

Swallow’s nest (with flash)

Last week we hurtled down to Pembrokeshire in the heat. Jane had an event to attend in Haverforwest and I wanted to do some bird photography in the Marloes area. We had an evening boat trip lined up too, which took us into the bays on the north and south coasts of Skomer Island amongst all the seabirds.

I headed out with my long lens on Wednesday morning and spent some time around the Deer Park. There were two family parties of chough in the area and a group of adult non-breeders. After a couple of hours I headed back to Lockley Lodge for some coffee, and then into the nearby Marine Nature Reserve building with its illuminated displays and pilot whale skeleton. The main attraction for me here was the swallow’s nest built into the eye socket of the skull, which had earlier been featured on Springwatch. I was delighted to find four large, bouncing, baby swallows being fed frequently by their parents, despite regular interruptions by human visitors. There was another swallow’s nest in the ladies toilets next door, apparently, and I had previously seen a couple in the gents; so I guess this particular pair was more discerning than some of the others……

Adult leaving swallows’ nest (no flash).

Unless the doorway was almost blocked the adults took no notice of people at all; and with the nest at little more than head height this was an opportunity not to be missed. I set up the tripod in the corner of the room and attached the camera and long lens. But boy, was it dark! Even at 3200 ASA I was exposing at slower than 1/100th second. It would be nice to think that I could capture the young gaping excitedly (but without moving) on the nest while the adult hovered artistically beside them with food but it just wasn’t going to happen. Time for Plan B.

Flash.

I never use flash. I don’t have a flash gun and my 5d3 definitely doesn’t have one built in. Maybe the 6d (back in the van) had a built in flash? It was worth a try; but no joy. Then there was the little Panasonic GX7 which I carry around with me when I can. Yessss! I was in luck. After a long time fiddling around with menus I finally worked out how to use it. You press the button and the flash pops up. Surely it can’t be that easy…..?

With the 5D3 and other SLR’s (I imagine) you press the shutter and keep pressing – the result being a burst of images which capture the action at up to 12 frames a second – although the 5d3 is rated at 6 fps and seems slower than that. With the GX7 it’s one frame at a time; that is, in this situation, one frame each time the parent brought food for the young. Fortunately the feeding visits were coming thick and fast and I never had long to wait. I wouldn’t say I’m totally happy about any of the results, however. Technically those with flash are much better, but I didn’t quite get the composition right on any of them. Those without might be artistically more pleasing but those conditions were really was pushing the camera beyond its limits, even one as capable as a 5D3. It was difficult to process any of the images to any meaningful extent without degrading the image even further into unusability.

Nevertheless it was lovely just to watch the young begging enthusiastically for food, and the adults bringing it in so fearlessly. I love swallows and it is a source of sadness that they no longer nest in our garden shed.

 

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Birding at Heron H.Q.

Glastonbury Tor from Ham Wall at sunrise.

Only twenty years ago one could reasonably expect to see a grey heron or two at a wetland in southern England and possibly the one of the first little egrets to arrive on these shores. How things have changed! Little egrets can now be seen all over the south, and several other heron species have arrived in Britain since then. Spoonbills nest in Norfolk and probably elsewhere, and it cannot be long before glossy ibis nests in the UK. The great white egret, previously a rare vagrant, has been breeding on the Somerset Levels (a.k.a. the Avalon Marshes) for several years, and may well do so elsewhere. Cattle egrets have nested there and even little bitterns. To avoid confusion it is now necessary to refer to its larger relative as the “greater bittern” instead of plain “bittern”; and  there are now more of them in the Avalon Marshes than there were in the whole of Britain at the end of the last century.  The conversion of large areas of redundant peat cuttings into reedbeds has created what could accurately be described as U.K. Heron H.Q. The RSPB has a fabulous reserve (Ham Wall) there and is constantly adding new areas of land to its holding. It might be a massive corporate behemoth beset by unpleasant internal practices but, boy, does the RSPB do a good job when it comes to habitat creation!

Great white egret over the Avalon marshes.

In a previous post I wrote about a trip to the Somerset Levels in winter, where I photographed starlings and great white egrets. Earlier this week I spent a couple of days around Ham Wall and what a great place it is!  My internal clock woke me about 4 a.m on the first morning and from the van I could see wisps of low fog in the air.  I wasted no time (well, maybe a little….) in getting myself up and on to the reserve. It was a gorgeous, atmospheric morning, with misty conditions throughout;  the iconic shape of Glastonbury Tor, with its tower, was often visible, and this was my first photographic objective (see above). It was soon sunrise and birds were leaving roost sites and moving to feeding areas in the marshes.  I tried to include over-flying birds in these early morning landscapes even if they were quite small in the viewfinder. It was particularly noticeable how many great white egrets there were, and I saw several greater bitterns in flight. Despite being extraordinary birds in themselves I can’t get too excited about the appearance of the latter in flight, while the former are delightful.

Barn owl.

As the morning sun rose and burned away the mist the landscape began to look a little more ordinary. Mid-June is not the greatest time of year for landscape photography but there was still plenty of interest bird-wise. A barn owl was hunting in broad daylight near one of the hides and flying past with prey – a nest nearby, no doubt. I’ve never been that good at birds-in-flight so it was a bonus to find that a few images I took of it are reasonably sharp!

It is usually possible to have an exchange of information with other birders and I think most enjoy it.  But with rare species, especially if they are nesting, there’s so much misinformation around. You just don’t know who or what to believe. Was the guy in the welcome hut – no doubt anxious to keep visitor numbers up – being honest about the red-footed falcon that had apparently been seen earlier?   The Ham Wall recent sightings blog made no mention of little bitterns, but despite that were they back again this year? So after a well-deserved (I thought) and rather lengthy siesta I headed back on to the reserve in the late afternoon from the Glastonbury end. It wasn’t long before I came across a gaggle of birders standing by the main track looking into the reeds. This looked like a gathering. Had I stumbled onto the location of the legendary little bittern? At first my attempts to ascertain this were met with a rather frosty silence. But soon it emerged that yes, I had. It had been heard there earlier in the day and seen briefly. I waited around for an hour or more but all was quiet; it was time to move on.

Greater bitterns had been booming on and off all day and it was the first time I had heard the “in-breath” and really got to grips with the sound.  If all else failed I was also hoping to hear the “bark” of the little bittern; sometimes the sound of an elusive bird’s song can be enough; you know it is there somewhere and it all adds to the sum of one’s knowledge of wildlife. So I stopped at the same section of reedbed on the way back to the van and listened. And there it was – a regular, nay, monotonous single note repeated every two seconds exactly. After half an hour of listening I saw a movement low over the reeds – a stunning male little bittern. The sighting lasted just about second, but I was elated. The barking resumed from the reeds in the direction the bird had disappeared in.

Marsh harrier at dawn, Ham Wall

My second morning at Ham Wall was similar. Misty, still, and full of birds.  Below the Avalon Hide marsh harriers were just arising and stretching their  wings. (In fact, I later discovered that the three birds I saw together were probably one male and his two females…..) The barn owl was still hunting the same area. A cuckoo was very active. The little bittern was still calling, and there seemed to be assorted other heron species everywhere. What a sight and sound!

 

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Flying the flag for Britain.

Flying the flag for Britain (from Private Eye)

I’ve just returned from a holiday in the south of France. My holidays usually involve a fair amount of photography, but on this occasion it just didn’t seem to happen, despite my having a fair amount of kit with me. On the way down I picked up a copy of Private Eye and couldn’t help noticing the cartoon reproduced above (with apologies to Private Eye and Russell). Now I happen to be a big believer in the “socks with sandals” look as it is very practical (I won’t go on……….). But for some reason it seems to be regarded in some quarters ….well, most quarters….. as being in the worst possible taste.

One lovely day in France we did a long cycle ride amongst lagoons and wetlands by the Med and it just seemed –  well, so right, really – to go the whole hog  in the footwear department. I can see this look really taking off next season on the catwalks. Hold the fashion pages…..!

Hold the fashion pages….. (thanks to Jane)

 

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Swings and roundabouts

Fish farm, Penmon: Purchased by National Library of Wales

Over a period of many years the National Library of Wales bought complete sets of prints from each of my books as it was published, or as they were exhibited. They currently have a total of 371 Cibachromes purchased in this way. This came to a sudden end about ten years ago when they took on a new member of staff whose task it was to raise income from items in its Collection. I’m not sure what her background was but this bright spark decided it would be a good idea to sell copies of photographs bought from photographers or donated by them. She obviously had no idea about copyright. I was asked to sign a statement approving this and I refused. I found it astonishing that an institution whose readers had to sign a “personal use only” statement every time they photocopied a page of one of its books should believe it could appropriate photographers work in this way.  It may have been a coincidence but no more of my work was purchased for the following decade. It was just one of the ways in which my income declined over that time.

I’m glad to say the situation seems to have changed. That particular member of staff has apparently retired and I’m now in the process of selling a set of prints from “Wales at Waters Edge” to the Library. Not the whole lot (there are over a hundred) but a selection of twenty made by their Curator of Photography Will Troughton. He has described me as “Wales’ leading environmental photographer” and goes on to say that “his meticulous work has received extensive praise from many quarters”. For months on end it feels as if one is working in a vacuum, so this came as a very pleasant surprise. Environmental photography might sound a bit of a niche but it does suit my work quite well. I’ll quite happily use a building – a castle, lighthouse or cottage – as an aid to composition in my more commercial landscapes (the postcards, for example). But in my personal work I’m usually careful to use human elements within the landscape only when I’m tring to say something about that landscape.  I’m not always sure what exactly I’m trying to say but photographs do not always provide answers; sometimes they can pose questions. In my case the question is often “What exactly is our place within the landscape?” That is also why I have always been so keen on Fay Godwin’s work. It was very pleasing to see from his choice of prints that Will understands what I am trying to do.

Life is full of ups and downs and I have also suffered a major setback recently – although hopefully only a temporary one. Most of my books have been published by Gomer Press, arguably Wales’ premier publisher. However they are clearly now downgrading their publications department and in an attempt at “restructuring” are replacing the number of posts by 50%. All eight current members of staff were asked to re-apply for the four posts now envisaged. All refused and took redundancy payments. Gomer currently thus has no publications department, and any books “in development” but not contracted have been shelved.  However I am still hoping that either Gomer Press or another publisher will take my new book up before too long. Both Jon Gower (the author) and I are well-known and respected in Wales in our respective fields so they should be leaping at the chance!

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Tripod head talk….and our cutest mammal (surely!)

Red squirrel, Anglesey

For many years I used a Magicball tripod head which I thought was a brilliant and very versatile piece of kit. I had two, in fact, with a Mini-Magicball on my lightweight “walking” tripod. The secret of the design was that it was “upside down” and screwed directly into the base of the camera or lens plate. It wasn’t until I started using long, heavy lenses to photograph wildlife that I began to see the weakness in the Magicball design. It was VERY stable when the lens (even a heavy one) was aligned along the main axis of the head. When it was at 90 degrees for a portrait format image it tended to slip out position very easily. So it was time for a rethink…..

Then  I discovered the Uniqball, as its name suggested another unique design this time with one ball inside another. The outer ball was first locked to fix the horizontal axis; the inner ball then behaving like a pan-and-tilt head for an exact composition. About a year ago I got hold of one of the very first UBH35P models in the UK, and I really, really wanted to like it. Over a period of a few weeks I got to know it reasonably well and concluded that it was a qualified success as a piece of equipment. It had two weaknesses, but I thought I would get to grips with them over a period of time (to read the full review click here). The problem was, I just couldn’t. While using the head in  “landscape” mode I found it incredibly frustrating to have to re-set the outer ball every time I moved the tripod. This was particularly annoying on uneven and/or sloping ground, and I found myself cursing over and over again in such situations. The photographer should never have this kind of relationship with their equipment so I retired it and dug out a rather cruddy old ball-and-socket head while I decided what to do next.

Poseur? Moi?

After many hours of browsing the internet I came across an American brand called Acratech. Their ball-and-socket heads are distinctive in several ways, including their very light weight, and their astronomical price in the UK, but what really grabbed my attention was the claim that they could also be used as a gimbal head. I’ve never used one myself but actual gimbals are very specialised and bulky heads used by bird photographers. With a well-balanced camera/lens combination, all the locks can be slackened off to allow movement in all directions using only fingertip pressure.  I was sceptical that a lightweight ball-and-socket head could also include this functionality.  I worried particularly that with a heavy camera/lens combo tipped over to one side,  the tripod would become unbalanced and tip over. Manufacturers continually claim that their new gadget will solve all your photographic problems, and it may solve some. But at the same time it may have disadvantages which only become apparent when you get one in the field……. however, I digress: my b&s head was getting stickier and stickier and I was cursing it more and more. Things were looking desperate. I saw one final positive Acratech review and my mind was made up. It was time to click “buy”.

Last weekend saw the first outing of the new head (model code GPss) when I headed off up to Anglesey to have a go at photographing red squirrels. This lovely mammal was close to extinction on Anglesey in the late 1990’s when the Red Squirrel Trust Wales was set up. Its aim was through education and conservation measures – including the release of captive bred animals – to re-create a thriving population of red squirrels on the island. Grey squirrels had already arrived by using the bridges across the Menai Strait (or by swimming) but it was thought to be relatively easy to keep Anglesey free of them. The project has been a real success and it is thought there is now a population of about 700 on the island. They are beginning to re-colonise the area around Bangor on the mainland from this stronghold, and extermination of greys there will help to encourage this process. I had been told that the Newborough Forest – where there are some feeders – was the place to see them, although I failed to do so on my first visit last November.  This time, however, I was more successful and I spent several happy hours in their company over a couple of days.

Another red squirrel……

What lovely creatures they are! On a cuteness scale of one to ten, they must be at least eleven! They proved pretty elusive during the day but around breakfast time and before dusk up to five visited the area around the feeders. They are also kept well-fed with treats there by nature lovers and wildlife photographers.  They are partial to all sorts of nuts and seeds and at quieter times of the day will sit calmly feeding (and looking really, really, cute) just a few yards away from people sitting at nearby picnic tables. When more nervous they might scamper up a nearby tree-trunk and then stop, posing for all their worth for the photographer. Problems included trying to keep up with their erratic movements within the trees and occasionally high levels of contrast when stray sunbeams found their way through the tree trunks into the feeding area. It was sometimes difficult to expose correctly when an individual moved from a dark background to a light one, or vice versa.

And how did the new tripod head cope? I have to say very well. I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to use the head as a gimbal; there was no real threat that the tripod was about to overbalance although one would always need to keep an eye on this. And even with shutter speeds down to 1/125th second due to the low light levels within the woodland I managed a high percentage of sharp images. This suggests the tripod and head combo was keeping the lens pretty stable, even at 600mm.

There was a steady stream of other photographers and wildlife lovers visiting the site over the couple of days I was there, and I enjoyed some interesting conversations. On Sunday morning I shared a long session of red squirrel fun with Martin and Jayne from Rhos-on-Sea.  We were entranced by the animals’ antics and, as our shutters clicked away busily,  it felt quite special to share the experience with other like-minded people. But the thought remains that if it wasn’t for those dedicated people, often volunteers, who worked on this conservation project we would have had no red squirrels to photograph and enjoy. So my thanks go to all of them.

 

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Fay Godwin revisited

The Dee Bridge, Flintshire (from Wales at Waters Edge)

The Dee Bridge, Flintshire (from Wales at Waters Edge)

Saturday the 18th saw the opening of a new exhibition at MOMA Machynlleth of the late Fay Godwin’s black-and-white landscape photographs. It includes a selection of original prints from the National Library of Wales’s collection linked to “The Drover’s Roads of Wales”. This was a bit of a classic from the 1980’s and one of Fay’s first forays into the world of books, and one which helped to make her name. There can be little argument that she was at that time a landscape photographer but she later came to deny this, and claim instead that she was a documentary photographer. But in my opinion this was a moot point. She worked for most of her career in the landscape and that’s good enough for me. What set her apart from most others in the same field was her knowledge of the issues around the landscape and the way she incorporated them into her photographs. While many landscape images, then and now, are stunningly beautiful they actually say very little about their subject matter. It could be said that Fay Godwin’s images, on the contrary, were landscapes with content.

Alongside these prints was another group chosen by invited photographers (including such names as Paul Hill, John Davies and John Blakemore), and others, who were inspired by Fay’s work or who had other connections with her. These were printed by Peter Cattrell, Fay’s own printer and they look absolutely sparkling. Each was asked to select one of Fay’s images and write an extended caption for it and I’m glad to say that I was one of those invited. My choice, and the caption I wrote for it is below. The image appeared on the rear cover of the third of Fay’s “landscape trilogy” – The Edge of the Land (published in 1995). With its rather enigmatic composition I assumed it was from relatively late in her career, but I have recently learned that it dated from the early 1970’s and was included in her retrospective Landmarks as a “snapshot”.

Ramsgate, Kent by Fay Godwin. Fay Godwin’s work has been a visual soundtrack for most of my photographic life. I roamed wild landscapes with my camera from the 1980’s onwards and sometimes came across quirky, incongruous or downright ugly scenes. The photographs I took of them became my “human landscapes”. It was certainly reassuring to know that Fay Godwin had already ploughed the same furrow that I was following. Whether mine work as well in colour as hers did in black-and-white, I don’t know: perhaps not. Fay Godwin’s photographic journey in the landscape began by making images to illustrate guidebooks (e.g. “The Drovers Roads of Wales”) and ended with very personal statements about her own place within it. “Ramsgate, Kent” appeared in the “Edge of the Land”, the last of her landscape book trilogy. Its meaning was probably clearer to her than it is to the viewer. But I like the way that each individual element in the picture has absolutely its own place in the image; rather like chess pieces on a board. And I have an interest in verbal messages displayed in the countryside. They tell us a lot about what we are like as a species.

Ramsgate, Kent by Fay Godwin.

Fay Godwin’s work has been a visual soundtrack for most of my photographic life. I roamed wild landscapes with my camera from the 1980’s onwards and sometimes came across quirky, incongruous or downright ugly scenes. The photographs I took of them became my “human landscapes”.  It was certainly reassuring to know that Fay Godwin had already ploughed the same furrow that I was following. Whether mine work as well in colour as hers did in black-and-white, I don’t know: perhaps not.
Fay Godwin’s photographic journey in the landscape began by making images to illustrate guidebooks (e.g. “The Drovers Roads of Wales”) and ended with very personal statements about her own place within it. “Ramsgate, Kent” appeared in the “Edge of the Land”, the last of her landscape book trilogy. Its meaning was probably clearer to her than it is to the viewer. But I like the way that each individual element in the picture has absolutely its own place in the image; rather like chess pieces on a board. And I have an interest in verbal messages displayed in the countryside. They tell us a lot about what we are like as a species.

Alongside these two strands is a separate exhibition at The Penrallt Gallery and Bookshop, a few doors up the road from MOMA. Invited photographers were asked to choose one image of their own which they felt was particularly inspired by Fay Godwin’s work. My own choice is at the top of this post and I wonder if anyone can see the parallels between it and “Ramsgate, Kent” reproduced above? While in many ways there is no similarity at all for me it is the chess board analogy I mentioned in the extended caption that applies in both examples.

The Penrallt Gallery/Bookshop was opened a few years ago by Geoff Young and Diane Bailey, both of whom, in previous lives, taught photography. They have an excellent selection of books, particularly on the arts, photography and the environment – just my sort of place, as you can imagine! It is just one of those places which is very difficult to leave without having bought something. They also show the work of  upcoming photographers and hold a regular series of talks and readings with photographers and authors, plus various writing workshops. The Fay Godwin exhibition at MOMA and the spinoff at Penrallt were organised and curated by Geoff and Diane and a brilliant job they have done of it. It deserves a far wider audience than it is likely to get in a small town in mid-Wales.

On March 11th and linked to the exhibitions is a conference on Fay Godwin’s photography (with guest speakers) and including a preview of a new film about her life : “Don’t Fence Me In”. I’m really looking forward to it. For details click on the link below ;

http://moma.machynlleth.org.uk/?page_id=810

Both exhibitions run until April 1st. For details on how to visit MOMA Machynlleth, click on the link below.

http://moma.machynlleth.org.uk/?page_id=75

For more information about the Penrallt Gallery/Bookshop, click on the link below.

http://www.penralltgallerybookshop.co.uk/

 

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