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The one thing I do when I’m away from home is walk. A lot. I might just set off in a random direction to see what I come across. Or sometimes I will try retracing a route I have walked a hundred times before because once in a while this is when I see something for the first time. One of the differences between me and a proper photographer is that I might have to go somewhere that many times before I finally see the photo that jumps out at me and then seems obvious. But perseverance is also one way of getting to the answer you want.
I think I cracked Berlin this time photographically, finally managing to capture some of the contrasts I see in the city. I also spent most of the time with plasters on my heels so I could walk for enough hours of the day, but it was worth it.
Here’s what came of it this time, in an entirely random order with some recurring images.
Welcome to my Berlin.
One of my gripes about digital versus film is that I get different colour renditions depending on which digital camera I am using, and the colours often bear absolutely no resemblance to the ones my eyes see. Now it might be that colour film has/had the same issue, but I have only used black and white film for so long that I can’t remember if I had the same problem with film. In this case, it worked to my advantage – the subtle colours from a winter sunset were nowhere as near as pleasing in ‘real life’. There are three layers of Berlin in this photo. In the foreground the wreck of a ship, to the left in the middle the two towers of the famous Oberbaumbrücke and behind that (and hazy) the television tower which dominates the landscape of the city (more on that later). And yes, I walked all the way from that tower and discovered so many things I had never seen before, including walking past the power plant that sits near the centre of the city.
In the middle of sophisticated residential streets, you come across abandoned, graffiti-covered structures which always catch my attention. This one had so many padlocks on the gates that I decided they really did not want me going exploring any further. Spoilsports.
The television tower again from an angle I had not seen before because I had never walked right beside this church. The city is an eclectic mixture of the old and the new and I thought this captured that part of the city. You can see it in colour in a minute and decide which you prefer.
That wreck of a ship is back again – you can see it in the middle on the left – but this walk beside the river started with these massive structures in the middle of the river which I had never got round to seeing close up before. Definitely better in the evening light.
I am finally happy with this photo. It’s taken me a long time to get it as I wanted it. The pointed part of the structure is part of the wider complex the tower sits within. As I’ve said before, it’s just a matter of perspective.
The same tower and church as before, but from a different angle and this time emphasising the religious element contrasting with this symbol of East Germany.
What you won’t see on a postcard. This, for me, introduces the side to Berlin.
The skyline of Berlin is still sprinkled with clusters of cranes as the latest building projects take form. It’s been that way for decades and there is no sign of anybody slowing down. So maybe it was right that the crane was in this photo, even though at the time it annoyed me because it seemed to spoil the overall image.
Yes, you’ve seen it before, but I liked the vibrancy of the colours. When you get a day like this in winter, you have to make the most of it.
Still love my geometric shapes and I loved the way the shadows accentuated the structure.
I was busy taking a photo of something that it turned out was not worth bothering with, and then I turned around.
I will admit that I recognised Marx and Engels immediately from behind. Just don’t blame them for everything that was done in their names. But they changed history.
I am spending more time on photography than I was expecting to. And I have been thinking about perspective. I’m still using a camera with a fixed lens (ie no zoom) so if I want to change my perspective, I have to move. And it struck me that this is an analogy for life. If we want to change our perspective, we have to move from where we are. Otherwise, we will only see the same thing whenever we look.
In fiction, perspective matters a lot. As a writer, you have a number of choices. First person – ‘I ran.’ Second person – ‘you ran.’ No, don’t do that. Please just don’t do that. Third person – ‘he ran’. And then there is tense. ‘I was running towards the gate, my arms reaching out to catch the baby before she fell.’ Or ‘I am running towards the gate, my arms reaching out to catch the baby before she falls.’ One has happened, one is happening in the moment. Both perspective and tense change the feel of the story and how we relate to it. Some books mix tenses and perspective, sometimes effectively, sometimes annoyingly. One author at the Edinburgh International Book Festival was adamant that ‘you should only ever use the first person singular if you have a very specific reason to do so.’ And I realised that over half the books I had read in the previous few weeks were written in that tense. Writers have as many different perspectives on their work as much as in any other occupation. And the Book Festival has been invaluable in hearing different perspectives.
The other beauty of fiction is that it can help us to challenge our current perspective. We are forced (albeit willingly) to adopt the perspective of someone else, someone who will never share the same views as us. Even an autobiography will show a development in the author’s views over time. We are not the same person at 40 as we were at 20. Now I have to accept that ‘living’ a life through a novel is not the same as actually living that life. There is only so much that can ever be put into a character in a book. And yet. There is evidence that visualising something mimics the experience of doing that activity, not completely, but at least partially. Athletes know this well. My favourite example of this is Michael Phelps. During one race, his goggles began to fill up with water and he was unable to see properly in the water. He closed his eyes and kept going, executing perfect turns at exactly the right time. He set a new world record in that swim, because he visualises the perfect swim every night, then tries to perform it the next day. When trouble struck, he already knew what to do and simply performed what he had already seen in his mind (and practiced so often).
Some of the books that have had the most memorable impact on me are ones where I cannot now remember the character’s name, but where they gave me a different perspective on something I had no experience of – and in most cases, never will. I remember the feeling of being that person for a while. Jodi Picoult’s Sing You Home is a good example of this – a woman loses a baby she has longed for and finds her marriage at an end, and is surprised when she finds love with another woman. The book is not preachy, it just gives the reader a different perspective. I think part of the enduring impact of religious works is their attempt to give us a different perspective on our lives, on our relationships with each other, and to think differently about our place in the universe. Books can educate, entertain, and they can offer us a different perspective on life.
So back to the photography.
Here is a really boring street, the kind of one we walk past every day without paying any attention.
And here is the same street at night (two variants – neither manipulated by me other than by waiting for the sky to darken even more so the orange would dominate the scene).
Harder to walk past without noticing. Unsurprisingly, I took the evening photos first as the scene caught my attention immediately, then went back days later to take another shot of the same street during the day (which I will now delete, as it has no value other than to illustrate the point!).
And here is a bridge – three perspectives, all of them having a slightly different impact, just from taking a step forward or crouching down.
We will not change our perspective and learn to see the world differently if we are never prepared to move from where we already are. We already know where that is and what it looks like. It might be better or worse from somewhere else, and it might well be uncomfortable, but we will learn something in the process.
It’s been a while since I last did a photography-based blog, but I always come back to it eventually. I still remember receiving my very first camera, standing in the kitchen opening it. I even found it again a few years ago in a box I had long forgotten. It was completely dead and no use to anyone by then, but it went on many holidays with me and several month-long tours of different parts of Germany. It was nothing special but pretty much every photo came out well, leaving only the composition, which was my responsibility. Those were the days, of course, when every motorway service station had Truprint envelopes to send your photos off for developing and printing. And I still have albums and boxes of photos to show for it. There is still something about going through old photos that putting a slideshow on a laptop can’t quite emulate.
I plan on spending more time in the next twelve months with a camera in my hand. Never without one, really. And apart from events where a specific type of camera is needed, my plan is to use only two cameras, each with only lens, and in the case of the film camera, sticking with one type of film only. Because both cameras are pretty small and light, I should be able to have at least one of them around all the time.
Why two? Because I want to stick with the black and white film photography I started dabbling in last year, so that means the ancient Leica is in the bag. Slow, manual, not even a battery, being aware of the light and what the right exposure should be for that light, with a light meter in a pocket just in case or for when it’s so dark that I can’t guess the exposure. I just love the photos I get with it when it works.
But I also love the vibrancy of colour, so I’m going to allow myself a lightweight digital for that. One that nobody will notice.
To prove to myself that potentially good photos are all around us, I did a short experiment walking around Edinburgh for a couple of hours. Sure, there were no spectacular sunsets with palm trees, but that’s hardly Edinburgh, is it? What I am going to try to do over the next year is capture in pictures what I see as some of the essence of Edinburgh. And some of that will be best expressed in black and white, and some in colour. That will be fun (I think).
Here’s a little of what I started to see in those two hours. I’m sure I missed 90% of what was there, but it’s a start.
On the black and white front, a plant just sitting on a metal staircase:
A beautiful staircase in the city’s Old Town:
And a scene from the canal I know very well from the hundreds of miles I’ve ran, jogged and sprinted along beside it:
And then a splash of colour and lovely shapes from Luca’s recently renovated ice cream (and nachos – loved the nachos) restaurant (I’m pretty sure the colours jump out at me more when I’m trying to think in black and white):
More colour in the Meadows:
And a surprise find in Princes Street Gardens:
This is why I don’t want to have to choose between black and white and colour.
And finally, one photo which for me was the beginning of a story rather than having much technical merit as a photo:
I’m allowing myself a moment to be a proud Dad today. This time it’s not about dance for a change. LoLo has just finished a year-long project as part of what is involved in being in Class 8 in her school. It also involved putting on a big play, and culminates with a month-long exchange to Germany in June. Abbi had the pleasure of the same three big events within a few months when she was in Class 8, but that predates my blog so I will note only that she is currently in Germany visiting her oldest friend (they met when they were babies), having got herself from school to the airport, onto the right plane and to an airport in the middle of nowhere (well, it was Ryanair).
Her project was on black and white film photography (and yes, that meant we were learning alongside each other – I was definitely about two weeks ahead of her in terms of experience). She was using mainly an old Olympus rangefinder camera (as they were so cheap, we bought two so we could use the same type of camera on holidays and compare and contrast results), which meant she had to learn to focus the camera as well as try to work out what would look good (a) as a picture as opposed to what her eye saw and (b) as a black and white photo. And of course she had the joy of developing her films using the chemicals that have in common that they stink, just in different ways. And we learned that one of them is also very effective at staining anything it comes near.
To begin with, we were developing a lot of photos of – what was that meant to be exactly? – largely out of focus. But the point of the project is to learn a new skill and she started coming back with one or two decent photos (cue relieved father), then her success rate started to go up significantly. When the snow came (and I allowed her to use an autofocus camera that even wound the film on for her) we were outside, cars spraying us with hard slush as they shot past, and we discovered that LoLo loves trees. Or at least photos of trees.
So here are some of the better ones. And later ones. For most of them, she was entirely on her own, she just went out with a camera in search of something. The one of the rowers remains my favourite. I couldn’t believe it when that one showed up on a roll of film! It really does show that it’s not the camera, it’s the photographer.
And here she is taking a photo of the texture of the bark of a tree (her idea):
And her bark photo:
The other project I’ve had on the go in the background has just passed its one year mark. My dalliances with black and white film photography have been fun, even if I haven’t taken quite as many photos as I optimistically planned to at the outset. But this is strictly for fun and learning so it doesn’t really matter. It has, however, helped that LoLo decided to do her class project around the same thing so we have been spotted in similar locations with similar cameras throughout the year, even if she has gone over to the dark side and embraced autofocus, auto exposure and auto winding on, leaving me with the manual everything camera. I’ve now taken to referring to her current favourite camera as ‘that piece of plastic junk you keep using’ just so she can remind me how much better she finds it. At least I’ve managed to ensure she puts a decent (non-zoom) lens on the front of it so at least she has to think about where she’s standing instead of just zooming in and out.
Anyway, a year on and I’ve had one of the cameras with me a lot of the time, including trips to London and Berlin. It was supposed to be one camera for the whole time, but I got a second, different one, so LoLo and I had the same one for a while and it was so inexpensive it would have been silly not to get it. Plus it’s brilliant.
My hit rate has increased from 4 or 5 per roll of film to a much better ratio. There are still some duds in there where I think ‘have I learned nothing?’ and others where I’ve consciously tried something different and it hasn’t worked quite as I had hoped. The picture you see in your mind is not always what the camera tells you is actually there. In some ways, digital is good for that in that you can see the results immediately and try something else, but I find that I end up thinking more about the shot in advance, taking it and then moving on. None of this instant replay business. I like the surprise when I find a film and realise I haven’t developed it for several months.
Here’s a few I quite liked from a trip to London (yes, this was the film I found a few months later).
We came across a lovely garden hidden in the middle of Hackney. Turns out pumpkins aren’t just about their colour:
I liked the juxtaposition of the crumbling bricks, the stone carving and the addition of the modern art:
I was guessing the light and therefore exposure all the time and this one should probably have been a bit lighter, but I quite liked how the black stands out (it was actually the middle of the day!)
And this one was a surprise – I really wasn’t sure how it would come out but the texture of the wood and the different shades caught my eye. The way the leaves stand out was not what I had anticipated – sometimes it turns out better than you had thought!
And you can imagine how happy I was to find this structure outside the Gherkin. A good way to burn half a film. The last one is my favourite. Black and white is great for patterns.
The food container hovering in the middle was pure luck – I think there’s a hand holding it (all right, there must be one there) but it helpfully blends in to the background.
The original idea was to do the project for a year and then either carry on with it or sell the camera. Anything except leave the camera lying in a corner unused somewhere. The beauty of a Leica is that, while it does cost a lot to buy, it doesn’t lose any appreciable value, so you can think of it as having the use of a Leica for free for a year. And the Olympus only cost £50 to begin with. I’m hanging on to them. I am still having fun with this and every once in a while, the Leica just bowls me over. When I get the focus, exposure and composition right, at least. But that’s down to me.
We managed to develop five films yesterday. Well, we (LoLo and I) did two so she could see how it was done, then develop her own one herself, after which she decided it was time for a break and I did the other three. So today, something of Berlin and surroundings (aka Potsdam) as I saw it for a couple of weeks. All black and white of course, part of this year’s photography experiment. There’s another film to come (still in the camera) with some shots I’m already rather excited to see.
Wherever you go in Berlin, history is not far away. The Reichstag, for example, was once burned down by Hitler’s henchmen and has now been redesigned by Norman Foster, with an amazing structure inside the dome covering much of the roof:
And then there’s the Berlin cathedral, with its magnificent organ:
But enough of the tourist traps.
I like shapes and the way they can frame a picture:
There’s a bike theme developing here:
That last one I just found amusing really.
I found that I was seeing shapes and patterns everywhere:
Some of which were entirely more sombre. These are the train tracks where Jews were deported from Berlin in the 1940s:
Potsdam is famous for its palace, modelled on Versailles, but my favourite building is hidden, a few minutes’ walk from the palace and most of the people. I love its geometry and the light and shadows within the same space. At the end of the day, photography is all about light.
And a few from just walking around:
And finally, some of the people, who really do come from all over the world. In some parts of the city, all the signs outside the shops are in English only because of the diversity of the population living there. It’s not unheard of to encounter a native German having to order something in English because the person in a shop speaks no German.
Alexanderplatz is at the heart of the city – we were watching an impromptu show of some description and I turned around and saw this person having a sleep in the middle of the day.
These three were playing some very unusual music which seemed to be trying to blend jazz and hip-hop:
And then one of them came across the road to where were standing waiting to order our burgers (they are very good burgers, even if they are made in what used to be a public toilet, right under a railway track):
It turned out that he was from New York and we got chatting – he was encouraging everyone to get involved with a cause which had something to do with the further evolution of mankind and how mushrooms are the answer. We should, he said, be more like the trees which evolved from mushrooms. I tried to establish what that meant in practice, but then we got onto mushrooms and Chernobyl – “Google it,” he said.
And this musician was playing “The Sound of Silence” when we came by. I suspect he has an interesting life story. And I am always grateful when people are happy for me to take their picture.
And that’s some of what I see when I’m in Berlin.
Last week I mentioned writing with pen and paper, the way it was done for longer than word processors and computers have even existed. Not that anything would ever get published without technology, but there’s a lot to be said for slowing things down and thinking before committing words to paper.
So when it came to our summer holiday, I found myself thinking along similar lines about what camera to bring. There is not a scenario where I go somewhere without a camera of some description, even if it’s just the one in my phone, which has done me more than proud in the past when I suddenly saw something I had to take a picture of. This time, there’s no particular event that requires a particular type of camera, and I’m long since through with the tourist photos of Berlin. So what I wanted needed to be different. And feel different. Oh yes, and not cost much if I wanted to try something else out, mainly because I just want to be able to throw it in a bag and not worry about it, but also because I don’t want to be worrying about someone trying to steal it. So indestructible and small and light and cheap.
Right, that ruled out anything made since I was born then.
Which was just fine with me, because I wanted it to be a film camera, and I’m limited to black and white this time – I have more than enough colour photos of Berlin.
Hello, eBay (please tell me you see the irony of using an internet giant to find something pre-technology).
The answer in the end was really simple.
A forty year old Olympus with manual focus – just the job. But it also has automatic exposure setting, which should please the rest of the family as I don’t have to mess around with measuring the light all the time. Or guess it, which is a fun exercise.
And for the photo geeks – an f1.7 lens, how good is that?
£80. That was it. About as much as a couple of filters for a Leica.
Plus film is cheap in Berlin (what, you thought I hadn’t checked?) – about a quarter cheaper than the best I can get in the UK. So I don’t even have to take loads of film with me. It turns out Berlin is quite the place for photography. Not sure how I missed that before.
About week after it arrived, I had my first roll of film through it, answering the first question – it’s fun to use. And it just felt right, everything where it should be – and where it used to be when I was first messing around with cameras.
And I managed to get some shots I was pretty happy with. My hit rate was certainly better than I was expecting.
Yes, it’s hanging off the side of a building.
The side of Edinburgh you don’t see on postcards.
If a picture tells a thousand words, this is going to be a long blog today. I thought it was time for an update on the photography project, which I’ve now accepted is something which is currently being fitted into the odd minute and random walk rather than having dedicated time set aside for it. If you remember, the point is to use an old camera (in my case, it’s about 50 years old), one lens and one type of (black and white) film. And I do the developing and scanning myself. Film three was developed this morning. I’ve already learned from experience that you never touch the negatives, they take longer to dry than you think they should, and I’m sticking with my original expectation that I will be happy if two or three photos turn out anywhere close to how I saw the picture in my head. Black and white is a different experience from colour photography. I have a lot to learn.
Apart from taking pictures of the family, it appears there are a few things my eyes seem to be drawn to. One is juxtaposition. So I liked the graffiti next to the tattoo parlour – kind of like a tattoo on the building:
Edinburgh is a beautiful city. There are an awful lot of photos out there of the stunning parts – the architecture, the history of the city. And yet within a couple of hundred metres of the modern office blocks, the historical buildings, the tourist traps, there are derelict buildings and an entirely different view of Edinburgh. For some reason, that’s what I see when I have camera with me:
I came across a wonderful photography book recently after we were out for breakfast on a Saturday, which turned out to be more of a lunch judging by the time we got there. The girls wanted to pop into some of the charity shops, and after Camille prompted me about ten times, I eventually looked at the very large book called “Chromo” which was on the top of the bookshelves, wedged between gardening books. It turned out to be a huge number of photos all on the theme of colour, with sections devoted to one colour, and of course at a price nowhere close to the original one, even though it was in perfect condition. I hadn’t seen photos presented in that way before and since then, as well as looking for black and white shots, I’ve also been seeing concentrated colours more frequently. So here are a few first attempts at simplifying an image to focus on a dominant colour:
Yesterday was one of those rare days when my training plan called for a long run and I just didn’t feel like it. It had been a hard training week and the last thing I wanted to do was a 16-miler. But I got my sandals on anyway and did it and was glad I did. I think it showed that the training is working, and this week is a lighter week to allow my body to recover before we go into the next phase of the training. One of the reasons I normally love the weekly long run is that it gives me time away from everything when I can just think. Yesterday was particularly good for that because my watch decided to stop finding any satellites after mile 6 so after a brief tantrum I had to gauge my pace by how I was feeling for the rest of the time. That meant no checking of pace or distance for quite a long time.
I found myself thinking about the things I used to do as a child when there seemed to be unlimited time and life was much simpler. My recollection is of reading a lot of books, but the one time that sticks in my mind was when I was determined to read Dick Turpin all the way through before getting out of bed one morning (the book might have changed since but not my idea of a perfect morning!). I remember being thwarted in my attempt at a personal record by being made to get up, but I like to think I’ve got over that experience by now.
I also remember the day I received my first camera. Well, I think I remember it anyway, who knows how much is factually accurate after all these years? I received it as a Christmas present, it was a simple 35mm camera with a fixed lens and I took it everywhere with me, including on several tours of different parts of Germany, burning through film like there was no tomorrow. The approach we took on those tours was not always the most creative, but very practical. We looked at the photos on the postcards from wherever we were, worked out where the photo had been taken from, and went there. In the case of Heidelberg, that required crossing the river and walking up a long hill. But we got a good photo at the end of it. That camera lasted for years and years, never once went wrong, and I have boxes of photos with decades of memories from it.
With the advent of digital, I don’t have new boxes of photos any more. I have hard drives full of pictures which I now realise I should have sorted at the time. Maybe when I’m older…
The photos we have hanging up in our house are in the ratio 2 digital to 9 (alternating) film. This isn’t on some principle, I just like the film ones better. But that’s partly because those are all ones I took my time over, which is greatly aided by the camera being manual everything – focus, exposure, winding. It doesn’t even have a battery because it doesn’t need one. It forces you to stop and think. No zoom lenses either, you have to get yourself in the right place to take the picture. It’s also not the most portable.
For events when there is a lot of action – think school groups, sports – or when being able to whip out a camera from your pocket and take the shot, digital is great. No thinking, just point and shoot. If it doesn’t work, delete it, nothing lost. So I don’t have anything against digital. It’s just different. And I’ve now had a small digital camera in a pocket for several months just in case I see something unexpectedly. And, in case of absolute photo emergency, a phone (which is worryingly good).
I recently read an article which tried to cut through all the technology and issue a photography challenge. The premise was to keep everything very simple and learn the craft of photography by trying things out, learning, and trying again. So the recipe for any long-lasting success. I took from it three rules:
1. Use an old (almost by definition manual) camera. You could really buy a second hand camera, use it for a year and sell it for about the same amount of money these days. It’s pretty much free photography equipment if you want it to be.
2. Use one type of black and white film for a year (film is still really cheap, particularly compared with the depreciation of a digital camera, which is horrific). B&W has the advantage that you can develop it yourself for not very much money and it’s fun. Well, it was the one time I did it many years ago, and I’ve never quite got to the point of doing it at home. But I do have lots of film taking up fridge space, so I might as well get over that particular hurdle. I can also see a Duke of Edinburgh project coming on somewhere in all this.
3. Take photos. 2 to 4 rolls a week was the suggestion. So that’s somewhere between 10 and 20 photos a day. Now that part is hard because it requires time, and the article was aimed really at would be photography students. But the point is that you have to practice and learn.
So I’ve taken that article as new inspiration of going back to what I always loved about photography when I was younger. There was a wonder about it, the uncertainty (and sheer dread when you’ve done the photos for a wedding and you just hope the pictures don’t all come out black, it’s amazing the things you can imagine going wrong) and the amazement that this little box in your hand could capture a moment in time that you could go back to again and again and relive the memory. So something good came of yesterday’s run. And today… is a rest day from running. Wonderful. Time to get out the fifty something year old camera, give it a dust off, get the film back out of the fridge and find that light meter which I know I put somewhere that I would never forget… and then go and read a book. Probably not Dick Turpin though.