Sunday, May 24, 2015

Once More Unto the Beach Paul's Pictures Does Go: About Tidal Pools (AKA Rock Baths)

Being Seen in the Tidal Pool (Sydney May 2015)

Tidal pools, rock baths, ocean pools and bogey holes. These are just some of the names used to describe the outdoor swimming pools built on or into the coastline in Australia. Not common in other states, most of these pools are to be found in the eastern state of New South Wales, and especially in Sydney. Oh, and some people just call them swimming pools, or simply The pool. And bogey hole? Well that's easy: it refers to the less formal, less "built" holes in the rocks in which people like to swim. 

And people do indeed like to swim in these rock baths (that's what Sydneysiders call them, and as I am at least for now a local, I'm allowed to use the name) in great numbers and all year round as well. 

Kate Rew who founded the Outdoor Swimming Society in 2006 in the UK and went on to write a bestselling book called Wild Swim: River, Lake, Lido and Sea: The Best Places to Swim Outdoors in Britain (Guardian Books, London. ISBN 978-0-85265-093-6) defines wild swimming as:
swimming in any environment less subject to human control than an indoor public pool
She would approve of the multitude of places in Sydney where one can indulge in wild swimming in relative safety. The rock baths are open to the sea in all its moods (and they do front directly onto the huge expanse of the Pacific Ocean which can throw up its share of big waves and winds); swimmers are exposed to the sun, the sky and are right near or even on, the beach. The saltwater which washes into the pools (and has been known to wash swimmers out of the pools) is stimulating and healthy. 

And they are not only recreational: many of the pools host amateur swimming clubs which hold how to swim classes, social events and swimming carnivals. Water Polo was for a long time played in many of these pools, and diving competitions were held, though diving boards have been removed in more recent times as fear of law suits and insurance claims have scared local authorities into submission.

The pools are credited with being the cradle of the surf lifesaving movement in Australia. The skills acquired in the early days (rock baths began operating in the mid to late 19th Century) from activities such as diving, endurance swimming and in water sports like Water Polo, were seen as essential to the development of techniques used to save lives in rough waters

As surprising as it might sound to many, until relatively recently mixed open air bathing on beaches in Australia was forbidden. There were designated hours for men and for women and this rule was usually strictly enforced. In the late 19th and early 20th century a few entrepreneurs began to open pools which, though still segregated, were open all the time.

The pool in the image above is called Wylie's Baths at Coogee and it started life as a men only (the women had a pool at the other end of the beach which is more of a natural formation and is still there as well) pay as you go pool in 1907. Over time as beach bathing became more popular, there was a corresponding growing acceptance of mixed bathing (mainly due to safety concerns), Then, at a date I have been unable to determine, Wylie's became the fist ocean pool to offer mixed and family bathing. 

Ocean pools, rock baths, and even some of the bogey holes, are seen as relatively safe, family friendly venues for recreational swimming, as places to meet friends and even learn to swim. They have not only been a part of Australia beach culture for many decades, but have been pivotal in the very development of that culture. We also owe a great deal to these pools for their role in the development of the wonderful system of surf lifesaving clubs: According to the Surf Life Saving site, 615,000 people have been saved from drowning since this almost entirely volunteer movement started up in 1907 (that breaks down to about 17 lives saved every single day for 107 and a bit years Think about that.) 

Today, even as the temperature hovered only in the high teens (centigrade) Wylie's was still attracting swimmers, though I have to say, most people I saw could better be defined as poolside chatters (most fully equipped with coffee cups), with only a few actually jumping in.

Friday, May 22, 2015

The Tale of the Man with his Head in the Wishing Well

The Hand that Gives, Gathers (Sydney May 2015)
Now, as you may have heard me say before, I don't believe there are any ordinary moments, and you've probably read that I don't go searching for the surreal, or quirky or humorous moments either. However, every now and again, I witness something that just calls to me: "I'm surreal, I'm quirky, I'm anything but ordinary". Of course, as to that last one, I see those special things all the time, but stay with me on this one please.

One such surreal moment caught my eye yesterday in the centre of Sydney. A guy with his head down in a fountain. Obviously looking for something? Maybe. I will leave that up to you.

The fountain is actually a wishing well, and the statue of the dog is called The Legend of Islay. Let me quote the inscription (copied from Monuments Australia) so you know what it's about:

 The Legend of Islay
Islay was a favourite pet of Queen Victoria. Whenever he saw the royal mistress he would sit up and beg for a biscuit. He was often sketched and painted both by Queen Victoria and Sir Edwin Landseer, her painting master. The bronze sculpture by Justin Robson was modelled from a sketch drawn by Queen Victoria in 1842. Now over a century later, Islay is begging hopefully for a coin to help deaf and blind children of New South Wales. Islay died 26th April 1844 and buried in Adelaide Cottage, Windsor Castle.
Interesting eh? But, wait, there's more: The dog talks. Yes, a talking dog. And, naturally, someone has put a video online demonstrating him doing just that:

Even more interesting don't you think? The voice belongs to John Laws, the famous and notorious (in the opinion of some) radio shock jock who has been heard on Australian radio for as long as I remember (some might say too long). 

And, for a bit more: There is a stone on the front of the monument that comes from the battlements of Blarney Castle in Ireland. The plaque reads: "Touch the Stone from Blarney Castle, make a wish, and cast a coin".  

A it says above, donations go to the Royal NSW Institute for Deaf and Blind Children (where in a tangential and odd twist my father once worked as what they called the Bursar, or in real terms the manager of the facility).

I find this all fascinating and as a real treasured bonus to my work as a street and social documentary photographer. A surreal moment in a busy little square, that in fact reveals a story. Not necessarily the story we might all be wondering about: What's the guy doing? But an interesting one nonetheless. 

PS The title of the photo is from one of the inscriptions on the monument which you can see is in a number of languages.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Rubik's Cube on a Beach Down Under

Rubix No Mystery for Local Surfer Boys (Sydney Australia May 2015)

No, your eyes do not deceive you. This is a giant Rubic's cube. On a beach. An Australian beach called Maroubra. Well, it's also the name of the suburb and right now we are staying about a kilometer from the beach. Maroubra is a word from the language of the Dharwahal Nation, the Indigenous people who lived in this area for many thousands of years prior to the European invasion and means place of thunder. A fitting name in a lot of ways: we've had some tremendous storms since we arrived here a couple of weeks ago. 

This over-sized Rubik's cube is something of a mystery (hence my title. Inspired huh?). The structure itself is the cover of a storm water drain. On a morning in 2009 locals taking their daily strolls noticed that overnight the plain concrete cube had acquired the look you see here. 

Of course it's been guessed that some time during the night preceding that fateful day, local artists made their way to this beautiful beach and did the deed. Naturally nobody has ever come forward to claim the work as their own; nor have investigations by the media and various other people, uncovered any clues.

So, it remains a mystery to this day. It is also a quirky addition to the beachscape and a colorful sight to behold. It also seems to be a favorite meeting point and even climbing apparatus if my observations today are anything to go by. Whoever painted it, the cube is an excellent example of how public art can improve what local governments like to call the amenity of a space. Color, humor, mystery. All in a what was once simply an unattractive block of concrete. 


Saturday, May 9, 2015

Centuries Old Artistic Tradition Enriching the Streets of a 21st Century City

The Sun Shines Upon the Artist (Sydney Australia May 2015)

In the city of Sydney there is a train station (and ferry terminal) called Circular Quay. And in that station there is a platform with a view that just has to be the best view from a train station anywhere in the world. Well, I am sure it's up there anyway. Anyway, today, as I looked at the view, I saw a scene that really added that something extra and it was right below me on the quayside pavement.

Pepe Gaka is a pavement artist, or as they are called in Italy (Pepe is originally from Turin) madonarri. I had never heard this term until today when I read Pepe's signs. So, I looked it up on Wikipedia and here's what I learned:

The Italian Madonnari have been traced to the sixteenth century. They were itinerant artists, many of whom had been brought into the cities to work on the huge cathedrals. When the work was completed, they needed to find another way to make a living, and thus often would recreate the paintings from the church onto the pavement. Aware of festivals and holy days held in each province and town, they traveled to join in the festivities to make a living from observers who would throw coins if they approved of the artist's work. For centuries, many Madonnari were folk artists, reproducing simple images with crude materials such as tiles, coal, and chalk. Others, such as El Greco, would go on to become household names.
Interesting stuff don't you think? And to say that Pepe's work is absolutely stunning does little to convey its beauty and extraordinary technical quality. And this artist is not only talented, he spends his spare time volunteering as an art teacher, gives away completed works to charities and is, in the next couple of months, headed off on a world journey that will take a few years and see him travel around Australia and New Zealand, to several Asian countries, to Canada and the US, before heading for Europe. 

Pepe makes his living from donations from passersby who appreciate his work, just like all the madonnari before him. It's a fine tradition, and one that is alive and well on the streets of this modern and cosmopolitan city thanks to this fine artist.

You can find Pepe Gaka at the following places online:
Or, if you're really lucky, you can find him most weekends at Circular Quay in Sydney. Either way, make sure you check him out; you won't regret it

PS: I'm hoping to post more photos, and perhaps a short video, I am planning on making from that train platform. So, stay tuned!


Thursday, May 7, 2015

On the Bus and Chanting: Getting ready for the streets

Daydreaming Girl (Melbourne Australia October 2014)

It's a thirty minute bus ride from where I'm staying to the centre of the city where I've been going to wander the streets and photograph. Not far really and not such a bad ride. The bus cuts through a range of suburbs, past parks and altogether it's nothing to complain about.

Yesterday I began the ride as I usually do: staring out the window and just kind of looking at the passing scene. But, then, I thought: I don't want to look around, I want to close my eyes. So I did. Not to rest as such, but to just get centred, grounded if you like. More than this though there was a sense that I wanted to prepare in some way. Now, of course this was not the first time I'd felt the need to prepare for a session on the streets; it's just that I liked the way it all just seemed to "happen" this time.

So, I closed my eyes and took some deep breaths to relax a bit (not the easiest concept for me this relaxation business). I didn't sense that I wanted to just let my mind wander, so I began to chant:
Om Mani Padme Hum
This Sanskrit phrase is the most widely used mantra among Buddhists. Of course it can be literally translated, but that would only give a partial clue to its meaning. Over the years I have settled on my own interpretation:

Allow the wisdom which is inherent in all things but usually unseen and unknowable make itself known to me

So, why a Buddhist chant? Well, firstly let me say I do not use it because it is a Buddhist chant; I use it because I've come to feel it is right for me. On one level I like it because of the meaning, on another level it is the repetition of the sounds that help settle my mind, help ground me and even (on some rare occasion!) help me to really relax. As a humanist, I see no contradiction in using a "religious" chant. The meaning of this one is really about tapping into something that lies within us all. A kind of spiritual idea, it is true. But spiritual isn't always religious

Okay, you might ask, but why on the bus on the way to a session of photography on the streets? Well, this is the good bit. Spending that almost 30 minutes chanting, helped me to clear my mind to a degree; it calmed me; and it allowed me to feel open to receive.

Being open to receive is important for me as I walk the streets with my camera. It allows me to wait for a person, scene, situation, photograph, to come to me as opposed to me really having to look for or seek out those opportunities. But, while I am not "looking" I am more able to actually "see". And, at that moment of seeing, I am in a mental state that enables me to act and to make the photo I am meant to make. It allows this to take place without all the intellectualizing and over thinking that can so easily take over (and you can trust me when I say I need all the help in this area that I can get). It's the old right brain vs left brain story; the difference is that this time of preparation (which in my case involves chanting) helps to get the two halves of the brain working together.

So, did this all help me on the streets yesterday? I did feel more open, more relaxed and more "available". That's a good word: available. I guess another way to put it is that I was ready for whatever came my way. Did it result in "better" photos? I suppose that's not really for me to say. But in a sense it's not the point. Being more open as a street photographer is only partly about making better photos; it's also about being open to enjoy the experience, to be available for quality interactions with other people and above all to not be quite so judgemental as we (okay I really mean me here) might normally be.

By way of a finish, I am going to paste an image of the mantra in its original script form. Why? Because it really is quite a beautiful image in its own right and I like it a lot.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Just another day on the street: A smile and a Chat about Changing Cities:

A Smile for the Camera (Sydney Australia May 2015)

It's no secret to anyone who spends time on the streets of any city, that cities are constantly changing, ever evolving beasts. I see it all the time of course, in both little and big things. Today I was shown another example; this time I guess it was a big thing.

The photograph above was made on the platform of a train station and, as you can see, the backdrop is pretty spectacular. In fact, the bridge is precisely the reason I was there! Anyway the man you see smiling here is doing so because he has just noticed me and my camera. He'd been pointing his mobile phone in the direction of the bridge and I was pointing my camera at him pointing his phone. You get the drift.

Me:     Great view isn't it? I shouted to him as I saw him notice me (but only after he shared this smile                       with me)

Him:   Yes it's beautiful

Me:     Well I actually got off the train to get some photos of the view and the bridge. Thanks for
            posing" for me.

We both laugh

Him:      I was taking a photo of a building down there (pointing to one of the two smaller
              buidlings in the middle of the frame)

Me:        Really?

Him:      I used to work there and now they're tearing it down

Me:       Why? (I was shocked because those buildings don't look that old.)

Him:      Redevelopment. They're buidling something much taller

Me:       Well I guess it's a prime location

Him:      It is yes. I just had to get a photo before it was gone.

With that his train pulled in and we waved a goodbye.

Cities change and evolve. Buildings get taller. Especially when there's a view like this one on offer.

Here's the one I made as he made his photo and before he turned and saw me.

Unknowing Pose (Sydney Australia May 2015)

Monday, May 4, 2015

In Every Face There are Stories

Do Not Forsake Me (Melbourne Australia June 2011

Everybody's face tells you about the society they live in and what they're feeling inside.  Faces are maps.
Sue Ford  (1943-2009)

Last year I had the good fortune to come across an exhibition of work by the important Australian photographer Sue Ford. It isn't often that I go to photographic exhibitions, which I guess sounds a bit odd coming from a photographer keen on learning and developing. The truth is, I find them to be, on the whole, boring. They rarely seem to me to be overly revealing of either the photographer(s) featured or of their work. Oftentimes they are simply marketing exercises put together with the view to what will sell.

The Sue Ford exhibition (held at the National Gallery of Victoria and billed as a major retrospective of "her artistic life and career") was a surprising exception. I came away feeling I had discovered an important artist and that I had learned about her work. I felt strongly that I had been shown the artist's inspirations, motivations and methods; I had a real sense of what she was trying to say. And I felt I had been allowed to see a fair representation of her prolific and varied output. I left the exhibition feeling renewed and excited. While Ford wasn't a street photographer, there was something familiar about her work and her aesthetic that I really resonated with and which I am sure has had an impact on my own work and thinking.

Just to give you a bit of an idea of who Sue Ford was and what she was about, here's the bio from that show:
Sue Ford was a pioneer of Australian photography, and one of the most important practitioners to emerge in the wave of 1970s feminist photographers. This retrospective exhibition celebrates her artistic life and career. It brings together key photographs, digital prints, collages and films created over an almost fifty-year period, as well as important archival materials.Ford’s work was both personal and political, and shows a fascination with private, shared and forgotten histories. Several concurrent strands become apparent when surveying Sue Ford’s practice, such as the influence of personal biography and a questioning of identity; an interest in gender issues and an advocacy and promotion of women in art and feminism more broadly; a serious connection to social discourse and contemporary politics; and a passionate interest in reconsidering and discussing the histories of Australia and its Indigenous people.Her prolific output also allows for a survey of the development of her unique experimentation with photographic, film, printing and multimedia techniques since the 1960s – processes which were connected, from the very beginning, by an interest in the politics of representation.
If you would like to learn more about this important artist, you can head to her official website here, where you will find more of her life story as well as an archive of her important works and other information. Well worth a visit, as is a more extensive search online


Sunday, May 3, 2015

There are Angels in the Street: The Beats, Street Photography & Me

Angels Alone in the Crowd (Melbourne Australia March 2012)

A long time ago, I saw a book in a shop window. The cover caught my eye, as did the one word title. It was Kerouac by Ann Charters. A biography of the so-called leader of the Beat Generation. I went in and bought the book. And it changed my life in so many ways. 

Many of Kerouac's novels are now recognized as classics of mid 20th Century American literature and they heralded the rise of the Beats and then the hippies. They spoke to a generation of young people who, hungry for freedom, took to the road, wrote poetry, explored Buddhism, drank wine and sought out any adventure that the road threw up.

Anyway, I read that book several times and it confirmed for me the sense I already had that my life would be lived on the road, and it encouraged me to carry on trying to write poetry (and to a lesser extent drink wine and seek out adventure).  Of course I then went on to read the road book to end all road books On the Road, the novel for which Kerouac is most known and which even now remains hugely popular. The immediacy of the writing and its jazz rhythms, make reading the book an experience to remember.

Since that first encounter I have read almost all of Kerouac's writing and a large number of books about him and other members of the so-called Beats. One of the biographies I read (several times in fact) is Memory Babe by Gerald Nicosia. Along with many other Beat enthusiasts, I think this is by far the best Kerouac biography. (Read it, even if you are not interested in Kerouac or the Beats; it's a wonderful book in its own right)

In a very real sense it is my study and reading of works by and about the Beats that has informed much of my thinking about street photography and the vision for it that I have developed over the years. In my latest reading of Memory Babe (don't you just love that title?), one paragraph in particular struck me as being perhaps an idea that had "sunk in" the first time around and went on to help form my thinking: 
There is no understanding of these incipient "Beats" at this point in their lives (the late 40s) without referencing to their overwhelming sense of the holiness of the street, which is to say the holiness of every spot of ground trod on by man (ie human beings).
The Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau in the 19th Century, put forward the notion that the divine is present in nature and in humanity, and that we can experience this divine essence by engaging with and learning from the natural environment. What Kerouac and the other Beat writers did in their writing and in the way they tried to live their lives was to extend to the urban environment this same quality of the divine (I should add here that the early Transcendentalists would probably have rejected this idea: for them it was nature that was where the divine could be experienced as an antidote to the dehumanizing and spirit poor "man made" institutions, modern technologies, cites and towns.).

The beats (like the Transcendentalists before them) proposed the idea that it was not only the environment that was holy, but that the people who inhabited the environment (those who spent their lives on the street in whatever capacity) were also holy. For Kerouac and the others, these people, especially the "beat down" ones are angels. Poet Allan Ginsberg even had his own definition:
Angel: A being who is as evolved spiritually as he is degraded in body
For the beats, especially for Kerouac, the more beaten down by life a person was, then the more angelic they became. Of course there are many ways to define being beaten down by life, and it would be a very rare person who hasn't felt totally beat at some time or other, whether they are in dire straits and homeless, alone and in deep poverty, or have a cushy job, nice house and loads of money, family and a "good life". 

As a rule, I don't photograph people who appear to be really beat down such as homeless people. Nor do I photograph anyone who is in a severely distressed or otherwise vulnerable state. But, occasionally, I find I have photographed a person (or people) who appears to have had a tough time, who maybe gives off a "vibe" of being tired or fed up or just plain sad with life, or their day or their partner, or whatever. This is, of course, an essential aspect of the human condition: to be tired or fed up or sick of the way things are. It is just the way life is.

At any rate, I have over time, noticed the occasional appearance of the word angel in a title that has popped up for an image I'm working on. The photo above is just one example. This couple seemed to me to be tired and perhaps upset about something. Maybe they'd had a tiff? Or had received some bad news? Or maybe they were breaking up? Who can say? Whatever the truth, they appeared to me to be beat.

In a funny sort of way, I think of all the people I photograph as angels of one sort or another. Like I say, we've all felt beat at one time or another haven't we? Also, angels are known to bring messages to people, and I reckon most if not all the people who grace my photographs with their presence have something to say to me.


Saturday, May 2, 2015

Paul's Pictures Hits the Beach and a Lesson is Learned about what Street Photography Really Is

Longboard Walkers (Sydney Australia February 2015)

There is so much debate going on around the question, "what is street photography?". And, don’t worry, I have absolutely no intention of entering into that debate. I don't mean to say that I don't have my own definition, my own interpretation; far from it: I know precisely what it is for me. If any of you are interested, just type in "define street photography" into your search engine. You will come up with enough reading material to last a lifetime. And, don't even think about looking at the differences between street photography and social documentary: some people say there are a heap of differences, others say the genres overlap. For me, or rather for the majority of my work, the genres are more or less the same.

Anyway, moving along a little. I was rereading the definition of street photography on Wikipedia, and really liked the first paragraph (on the whole):

Street photography is photography that features the human condition within public spaces. Street photography does not necessitate the presence of a street or even the urban environment. Though people usually feature directly, street photography might be absent of people and can be an object or environment where the image projects a decidedly human character in facsimile or aesthetic

The "human condition" and "within public places" are two of the elements that speak to me. No need to be "on the street" (though I have to say, that's where I spend most of my time and do most of my work), and not even in urban environments, though my street photography is almost exclusively in urban areas. Just my preference really.

And, for me the second paragraph also resonates: 
Framing and timing can be key aspects of the craft with the aim of some street photography being to create images at a decisive or poignant moment. Street photography can focus on emotions displayed, thereby also recording people’s history from an emotional point of view. Similarly, Social Documentary photographers document people and their behaviour in public places for the purpose of recording people's history and other purposes; 
I think it's probably fairly clear that the image above does reflect the ideas expressed in these quotes from Wikipedia. Of course, for me this definition might be a little limited in its scope. For instance, I would add that my work seeks to not only record but to celebrate humanity and the human condition in a way that is guiuded by love, compassion and empathy.

I've written before that, while the focus of my work is not on the camera or the technical side of things, I do feel a responsibility to make the best possible photograph I can in order to do justice to the people who are gracious enough to appear in those photographs. So, I do take careful notice of framing and timing when I can. And, while I do believe that there are no ordinary moments, I do try to make my photographs at what we might call a "decisive" moment; that moment that allow for the expression of that extra something. It's hard to explain, but you know it when you see it. 

Longboard Walkers is for me one such image. On a day threatening to storm, some surfers walk along the sand while surfable waves roll in (odd as it may sound, the waves which look pretty tame in this photo, are actually at least six feet. And who says cameras never lie?). You can almost hear the conversation: where should we get in? Who's going first? And you can almost sense the emotions: the excitement and anticipation; even a bit of anxiety: after all it was a wild day.

Above all, the photo for me shows us a moment in time, a moment in history even. Longboards seem to be back in fashion after a long while out of sight, at least from what I've seen anyway. The photo says to me, this is life being lived; it says that, for some, there is excitement to be had in connecting with nature; it speaks of freedom, friendship, challenge, open spaces. It also gets me thinking about life, and how I really should carry on doing the things I love, cherishing the freedom I have, along with the love and connections in my life.

I know, this is my own photo, I made it; well along with the surfers and the waves and the stormy sky. So, you might think, it will obviously mean something special to me. But, if people looking at it get even a fraction of what I've been able to, then I will be well pleased and know that I have done my job.