A tale of three images.

Ramsey Island (on left) and the Bishops and Clerks, from Whitesands.
Ramsey Island (on left) and the Bishops and Clerks, from Whitesands.

It has been a while since I last posted but things have been moving apace. Most of February and March was spent getting postcards out into shops in various parts of Wales. It is always difficult to drag oneself out of the semi-hibernation of mid-winter and this year was particularly fraught because Easter was so early.

It has to be admitted that sales of postcards are steadily declining. This is partly because people are using phones and Facebook to contact their friends while they are away but also because the number of potential outlets is declining rapidly. The perils of running a bookshop in the Amazon era are well recognised, but independent retailers of all kinds have been closing and are not being replaced in similar numbers. What is particularly sad is the number of Tourist Information Centres that have closed, will soon close or are under threat of closure. It is happening all over Wales as a result of cuts to local authority funding. It may be our local councils (and National Park authorities) that are having to make the difficult decision to close them but the root cause is central Government.

A selling trip that would until recently have taken two and a half days now takes two or less. But that does mean I have a little more time available for photography on these trips and I was lucky with the weather on some of them. After one particularly busy day in Pembrokeshire I was able to nip down to Whitesands, arriving just after sunset. I started a short high-tide walk along the beach but quickly ran back for the camera. The conditions were just stunning! I only had a few minutes to run off a few exposures and I wasn’t entirely happy with the composition in any of them. But I’ll settle for the above…….

On a trip up to north Wales I spent one night at Pen-y-pass YHA. I normally avoid youth hostels these days but Pen-y-pass is so well situated for an early morning walk in the foothills of Snowdon that in winter I occasionally make an exception. Unfortunately my dorm also contained a snorer so I had a disturbed night’s sleep and was not able to get up at the crack of dawn as I had hoped. But a little later on this was the view of the Snowdon horseshoe from “The Horns”, situated between the PyG and Miners’ paths.

Snowdon summit and Y Lliwedd
Y Lliwedd, Yr Wyddfa and Crib Goch from “The Horns”

I was able to devote the whole of this superb day to photography so then headed off eastwards to photograph the packed masses of waders at their high-tide roost at the Point of Air, near Prestatyn. The only trouble was – there weren’t any. Just a handful of the commonest species. I then spent a couple of hours searching for, and failing to find, my current birding obsession – hawfinches. I won’t broadcast the location because villagers get pretty cheesed off with the behaviour of some birders, but there is a well-known site for this rare and elusive bird in the Conwy valley. So for the second time in one day I assumed I must be driving around in a van with a huge sign, facing upwards, on its roof saying “Bird photographer approaching destination – make a run for it”.

But I had more joy at my final location, the RSPB Conwy reserve at Llandudno Junction. There has been a starling roost there all winter and on my arrival I was pleased to discover they were still around. There was no wind and it looked like there would be a good sunset, so I found a location where I hoped the birds would be silhouetted against a stunning sky. There was even the possibility of a reflection for good measure!  Towards sunset small groups of starlings began to arrive, some time later than they do at Aberystwyth. And they just kept on coming!  Several sparrowhawks made appearances and made hunting dashes into the flock. The starlings created tightly-packed balls and ribbons of birds to try to evade them. It was fabulous to watch but set against part of the sky which was too dark to allow successfully photography.

It really was a very large flock by the time they eventually disappeared together into the reedbed. It was almost dark by that time and they had been displaying for some forty minutes since the first birds arrived.  It was interesting to compare this with their behaviour at  Aberystwyth, where they were going to roost some forty-five minutes earlier. I managed this image as the flock swirled over one the reserve’s shallow lagoons.

Starlings in pre-roost display, RSPB Conwy reserve.
Starlings in pre-roost display, RSPB Conwy reserve.

I don’t know if it be useable anywhere else but on the web.  It was taken at 6.31 pm on March 10th, using pretty extreme settings for this type of subject – 4000 ASA, 1/160th second and f4.

Finally, just before Easter, I installed part of my Bird/land exhibition in the Visitor Centre at RSPB Ynyshir. It will be showing there until May 30th; but for the full Bird/land experience wait until June 25th, when an updated and expanded version will be opening in the Photography Gallery at Aberystwyth Arts Centre. Watch this space for more information.


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Final thoughts on Bird/land…..for now……..

Mallard (from Bird/land)
Mallard (from Bird/land)

Well, Bird/land closed just over a month ago and I have to say in many respects it was a success. Feedback was excellent; visitors were particularly complimentary about how different the work was to anything that I had previously done.  Print sales were also very good  and much better than I was expecting. As a result I have just sent a cheque for £140 to the RSPB towards reconstruction of their hides at Snettisham in Norfolk. I had hoped to make multiple visits to Snettisham during the course of the project to photograph the countless thousands of waders which congregate there but a storm surge of December 2013 destroyed the hides. So my small contribution will benefit conservation generally and bird photographers in particular.

What has been disappointing is the almost complete lack of coverage I have received in the press and the photographic media in particular. I suppose the exhibition did fall between two stools – not really bird photography, and not landscape either – so it was difficult to categorise. And, of course, it was in a small town in mid-Wales and who could even pronounce its name? But not for the first time have I believed that there is a prejudice amongst the English media about all things Welsh.

All is not yet lost, however. I have agreed to display some of the work at RSPB Ynyshir, my local reserve, next spring. And on a much larger scale the whole exhibition will be shown at Aberystwyth Arts Centre for two months next summer. I am hoping to be able to expand it to fill the larger photographic gallery there but that will be subject to receiving further funding from the Arts Council of Wales. So watch this space for further information about dates, etc.

The image above is one of only two singles in the exhibition. It has sold really well and only one remains at the time of writing. How I wish I’d offered an edition of ten or more instead of just six! It is so difficult to know how to sell photographs. Over the summer I noticed an exhibition of really rather average black-and-white landscapes in a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, in an edition of 295. Only in the photographer’s wildest dreams would anywhere near that number be sold. A short edition would, I hoped, create a feeling of exclusivity around the work, and thus increase sales. But I think I may have misjudged it. Just one of the lessons I have learned over the last few months!


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A light bulb moment

Bird / land no. 15 - crows
Bird / land no. 15 – crows

Earlier on this year I may have mentioned that I had been awarded an Arts Council of Wales grant to create new work for an exhibition in summer 2015.  Receiving the grant was exciting but the hard part was yet to come – yes, actually doing the work – but bit by bit, piece by piece, it is coming together.

For many years I photographed landscapes while at same time only watching birds. It partly went back to an earlier stage in my life when I spent a period of time working on and off for bird conservation bodies. During these years I spent months at a time in exotic parts of the UK, either surveying upland birds or protecting rare species at the nest site. In neither situation was I able to photograph the object of my interest. It just wasn’t possible, and I kept the camera to one side for the landscapes. But a few years ago I began to put my two interests together. There are many fabulous bird photographers around and I knew that it would take me many years to build up my skills to their leveI, if I were ever able to do it at all. But what I did have, I felt, was an awareness of the landscapes the birds inhabit which some of the photographers seemed to miss. That was the direction I decided to take.

The arts establishment is not known for its interest in wildlife. Many individual painters, photographers and sculptors (for example) are passionate about nature but there seems to be an unspoken agreement that it is not a subject worthy of the serious artist. So in theory it was probably an uphill battle for me to convince the Arts Council that my project was worthy of support. One needs to dress one’s ideas up a little to convince them of their value, so an exhibition of single images would probably not be sufficient. I came up with an idea which was not cutting edge but seemed genuinely innovative. This was to present the images in groups of three or more – triptychs if you like – linked by species, location or aesthetic qualities. Each individual image would be panoramic format. It also might have helped that I already had a good exhibiting track record achieved with minimal Arts Council support. Whatever, they went for it.

So an exhibition of 35 “pieces” would need something like 100 separate images; each one, ideally, worthy in its own right of being exhibited, and able to be linked to two others in some way or another. Ambitious or what! To be honest the amount of funding I received was in no way adequate for the time and expenses I have already spent on the project, not to mention the next six months, but it keeps the wolf from the door. By now I’m well on the way towards completing the work, and I have hundreds of images potentially suitable for use. Sometimes it’s possible to visit one location and come away with a set of images that are subtly different but similar enough to be shown together, and this can work very well. But in most cases the biggest problem is grouping individual images which may have been taken in widely different locations.

Not being specifically relevant to Wales, this project has allowed me to travel to some fabulous locations elsewhere in the UK and on the continent. But – rather appropriate for the time of year, I think – my most recent attempts have been very close to home. I’m only about five miles as the red kite flies from the Bwlch Nant-yr-arian feeding station. Here, at two o’clock every day, 10 kilograms of waste meat chunks are deposited by the side of a lake for the accumulated gathering of kites and crows. It is rather an overwhelming spectacle for the photographer, with well over a hundred kites present every day. Most people would eventually come up with some stunning close-ups of individual birds sweeping down to grab some food, or carrying a piece away to eat elsewhere. But that didn’t fit my brief, so I walked some distance away from the lake and gained some altitude. I’m still not quite sure how I’m going to tackle the kites but on one visit I noticed a dead conifer trunk nearby which served as a regular perching place for crows to observe the proceedings. It was just one of those light bulb moments! It was not what I originally had in mind but by visiting the same spot several times I came away with several suitable images and earlier this afternoon I put five of them together. While this may not be the finished article it was a real buzz to see how well they worked as a set!

What do you think?

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