From San Francisco to Pismo Beach

On day 6 of our trip from Vancouver to Tijuana we awoke in San Francisco.  From there we would continue down the coast to our stop for the night at Pismo Beach –  a  small city between San Francisco and LA.  We started the day by not going to Lombard Street.   I had seen it, and Ted was now a local, leaving only Nick wanting to drive on the crookedest street in the world.   When quizzed Nick on how he keen he was to go, given the traffic was likely to be heavy, he seemed a little diffident, so we skipped it.  As Nick started to complain about this omission, not visiting Lombard Street become one of the highlights of the trip for Ted and I.

After a brief visit to see Ted’s home and family in leafy Palo Alto, Ted took us to the best coffee shop in the area, the ZombieRunner Cafe & Running Store on South California Ave, just off El Camino Real.  Close by was the dive bar he typically visits on a Friday night – Antonio’s Nut House.  For afficionados of dive bars, this is the real deal, and the last of its kind in the affluent city.  In one corner is an animated ape in a cage, which Ted claimed never to have noticed before, despite his many visits.

Carmel-by-the-Sea

From Palo Alto we headed to Santa Cruz to pick up Highway 1, and in an hour from there we were in Carmel-by-the-Sea on the Monterey Peninsular. It is a beautiful town, and much loved by artists.  There are around 100 galleries in Carmel, many of which can be found along one road – Ocean Avenue.

Our first stop was the Mission Ranch.  This nineteenth century ranch was restored by the former Mayor of Carmel, Clint Eastwood, and is now a hotel and restaurant.  We had planned to have lunch there, but finding the restaurant closed we headed to the old Spanish Mission of San Carlos Borromeo del río Carmelo.  

The Mission

Carmel Mission Pismo BeachCarmel Mission was founded in 1770 and is one of the oldest of California’s 21 missions.   These are all located on or near El Camino Real, a road named in honor of the Spanish monarchy which provided the finance for expeditions to California.  It is also the only Spanish mission in California that has its original bell and bell tower.

It has been carefully restored and today it is both an active parish church and a museum.  I was pleased to find a small statue and two paintings so beautifully lit in chiaroscuro fashion it would surely have found favour with Caravaggio, the orignal master of darkness and light.  I took the shot shown here with my Leica Q, and was glad of its fast f1.7 lens, which operated in the gloom at only ISO 1,600 with the aperture wide open.

Being hungry by that time, we searched for somewhere to eat and were fortunate to come across to Tree House Cafe.  Here you can dine on a combination of  dishes from the Mediterranean, Greece and Thailand on a beautiful rooftop veranda. 

Detour on Route 1

After lunch we got back onto route 1, eager to see Big Sur and to enjoy the views of the coast down to Pismo Beach. We stopped at the spectacular Bixby Canyon Bridge for me to take a few shots, though sadly the light was not great.

Just south of the bridge we found the road was closed  due to a landslide.  It was only then that we remembered that our friend James had mentioned landslides back in Portland,   Sure enough, when we examined our much annotated map, James had routed us inland to avoid exactly what we were going to do next – drive all the way back up the Monterey Peninsular before taking Route 101 to avoid the landslide.

Unwilling to give up, Ted scoured the map for another route, and eventually came up with a small dotted line that crossed the mountains that separated coastal Route 1 from inland Route 101.   Nick was skeptical of our Chevy Suburban’s off-road abilities, and we debated it for a while.  I settled the matter by declaring the dotted line a goat track, and quite impassible.  With the matter settled and no other options, we turned around and headed north.  ‘Did I mention we need to be in Mexico by Friday?’ asked Ted once again.

On to Pismo Beach

With the detour it was dark when we arrived at Pismo Beach, once famed for an abundance of clams.   Back in 1957 in an episode of Bugs Bunny, the eponymous rabbit  and traveling companion Daffy Duck emerge from a tunnel,  into what Bugs believed to be Pismo Beach with ‘all the clams we can eat.’  The clams are much diminished in numbers now, but there is still an annual festival in their honour, and the city claims to be the clam chowder capital of the world.  A large clam statue at the southern end of Price Street ensures no visitor can miss the association.

The Pismo Beach disaster

Soon after I returned to the UK from the trip I was watching the US crime drama Ray Donovan, when I was startled to hear Bunchy, Ray’s brother exclaim ‘Jesus,  I moved my fucking family back from Pismo Beach for you, Ray!’   It’s also been mentioned in Futurama, Robot Chicken and the movie Clueless, which references the fictional Pismo Beach Disaster.

At night the back streets reminded me somewhat of Brighton in the UK – my second favourite seaside town after Deal, in Kent.   We checked in at the very pleasant Inn by the Pier, and stopped for a quick pre dinner sharpener at the bar.  Asking about the local hotspots our charming barmaid, Bobby, told us that wherever we went sooner or later we would end up at Harry’s.  Everyone did.  It sounded like destiny.

Dinner before destiny

Not wishing to meet our destiny on an empty stomach we went for dinner at the nearby Oyster Loft at which we made a second enquiry about where we go for drinks afterwards.  We were curious to be directed to the city of  San Luis Obispo, some 20 minutes drive away.  The courteous and professional staff there at the Oyster Loft also advised us that on no account should we visit Harry’s, which was 5 minutes walk away in Pismo Beach.  I took a look at our options online; San Luis Obispo’s best known landmark appeared to be bubble gum alley – a narrow walkway with walls coated in used gum.  In local news a female resident had just been sentenced to 8 years in jail for slashing her boyfriend’s throat with a box cutter.  By way of contrast Harry’s Beach Bar and Night Club looked innocuous enough.  We decided to go to Harry’s.   

Death in Tijuana

Harry’s was not the worst bar I’ve ever been to by any stretch of the imagination, but I couldn’t recommend it.  It was large and noisy and filled with older crowd whose careworn features and less than pristine dress gave the appearance that they had endured what we call in the UK ‘a hard paper round’.  The charm that any good dive bar has was completely absent.

It was my round and I approached the bar. The woman next to me had drunk herself to the point of insensibility.  She muttered to herself and swayed alarmingly on her stool so I moved to avoid a collision.  A tall man to her right steadied her and started to take control of the situation, enquiring how she was going to get home and whether he could help her into a taxi.  He seemed genuinely concerned and helpful.  Surrounded by people who seemed likely to be considerably less noble than this, I silently gave thanks for his good citizenship.

I brought the round of beers to where Nick and Ted were standing.  They had fallen in with a group that appeared less villainous that the rest of Harry’s guests and were discussing our forthcoming trip to Tijuana.  ‘Don’t don’t do it man’, offered the largest person in the party, who was an ex US Marine.  ‘Don’t go to Tijuana.  I was there recently and I saw a man get kicked almost to death by school children’.

This alarming anecdote from an ex military type was only sightly worse than what we had heard all week.  From Vancouver to Pismo Beach we were told that a trip to Tijuana meant we would almost certainly be robbed and were likely to encounter much worse – in this case a violent end at the hands of school children.  This was to be the case until we reached San Diego and got some more balanced, first hand advice.  Ted was phlegmatic about it.  ‘As long as we remember the Spanish for help, we’ll be fine’ was his assessment.

The Blues Trail – Mississippi & Arkansas

Into Blues Country

It was in the Mississippi Delta that sharecroppers first fused the rhythms and tones of Africa with the scale and instruments of American folk music to produce the blues.   This new musical form was was first described by touring musician WC Handy in Memphis in 1903.  By the 1920s the first blues records were being made.  By the late 1920s  Charley Patton had emerged from an anonymous folk tradition to become a blues superstar.  He was followed in the 1930s by many more stars, most notably the hugely influential Son House and the legendary Robert Johnson (though Robert was little known in his own lifetime).  The Delta blues started to move beyond the South, up the Mississippi river into the Midwest, aided in its spread by the phenomenon known as the “juke joint”.  This was an informal establishment, sometimes a “shotgun shack”, that provided music, dancing, gambling, and drinking for the sharecroppers, whose lives were exceedingly hard.  In the 1940s the blues evolved into electric, urban forms such as  Chicago Blues, popularised by Muddy Waters, which later formed the basis of  rock ‘n roll.

Highway 61

Blues Trail Tunica GatewayThe City of Clarksdale is located in the heart of the Delta, at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49.  This is the crossroads famed for Robert Johnson’s legendary Faustian pact.  From Memphis it is about an hour and a half’s drive down the Blues Highway (Highway 61) which follows the Mississippi river for much of its route.  Highway 61 is much more than a road in the US; it is second only to Route 66 as the most famous highway in American music.   Many blues artists have recorded songs about this storied road; “Honeyboy” Edwards, Big Joe Williams, and Mississippi Fred McDowell amongst them.  Bob Dylan said of it “Highway 61, the main thoroughfare of the country blues, begins about where I began. I always felt like I’d started on it, always had been on it and could go anywhere, even down in to the deep Delta country. It was the same road, full of the same contradictions, the same one-horse towns, the same spiritual ancestors … It was my place in the universe, always felt like it was in my blood.”  Needless to say, I was happy to take the Blues Highway to Clarksdale.

Gateway to the Blues Museum, Tunica

The Gateway to the Blues Visitors Center and Museum was my first stop.  It lies directly on Highway 61 between Memphis and Clarksdale, close to Tunica’s casino area (Mississippi’s Las Vegas), and less than an hour from Memphis.  The Museum is housed in a beautifully restored one-room, nineteenth century train depot, and serves as a gateway to the blues music scene across the the Mississippi Delta.  It was, for me, more impressive on the outside that in, but that is no criticism – for a photographer that is often the case and it is a really iconic building.  Inside there is a great collection of guitars, information on the hundred or so blues trail markers, and a good selection of blues merchandise and literature.  I got talking to the staff at the museum as I was buying some merchandise (a Robert Johnson T shirt), and admitted to being an amateur musician. In fact being a musician was my first choice of career and I’ve always felt a little regret that I ‘sold out’ to pursue a more conventional job.   I characterised this a little thoughtlessly, given where I was, and what I was buying there.  I used the phrase ‘sold my soul to the devil’ to describe the (alleged) sell out.  I’ve used the description before more than once before and received a smile as a result, but that wasn’t the case this time.  Note to self – never make reference to selling your soul to the devil in the Deep South!  One of the women nearly jumped out of her skin and the other looked most discomforted.  I assured them that this was not literally what I did, and that it was just a figure of speech, and apologised for alarming them.

Speaking of my music, there’s a link to one of my blues tracks below.  I think the song is well crafted enough, but the recording is very much demo quality at best and the lead really needs re-doing as I just went at it full tilt and lost the plot a bit – I am by no means a shredder.  That said, I know I’ll never re-record it.  I have too many other tunes in my head that I need to get down, some of which I wrote many years ago.  I rarely get time to record, which isn’t helped by the inordinate amount of time I take to lay down a track on my old school 16 track recorder.

The Delta Blues Museum

I headed into Clarkdale itself, to the Delta Blues Museum. It is located in an old freight depot built in 1926.  The area it is situated in was deserted and a quite run down, and I was convinced that I was in the wrong place until I saw the Museum’s sign.  It was established in 1979 as the first museum devoted to blues and moved to its current location 20 years later.  Bearded guitar ace Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top played a big role in raising funds for the museum.  He was also instrumental in bringing the largest and most important exhibit to the museum – the cabin where Muddy Waters once lived on the nearby Stovall plantation.  The museum covers the who’s-who of the blues very comprehensively and I wandered around it contentedly for quite some time.

blues trail clarksdale alleyBlues Alley and Robert Johnson

The Delta Blues Museum is at number 1 Blues Alley.  Right across the street is the Delta Blues Cafe, which has an old Cadillac art car parked outside and a haunting, peeling mural of Robert Johnson, the most potent legend of the blues, on the side of the building.

It was at crossroads of Highways 49 and 61 in Clarksdale, where legend has it that Robert did a deal with the devil, who retuned his guitar in exchange for his soul.  Formally a harmonica player and an indifferent guitarist, he returned with such a mastery of the blues that Son House and other older guitarists were incredulous.  The story circulated that Robert had sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads.   Cross Road Blues and Me and the Devil Blues, have both contributed to the myth of a pact with Lucifer.  In the latter song, Satan visits Robert early in the morning. Hello Satan,” sings Robert, “I believe it’s time to go.

Graveyard Versus Crossroads

In fact Robert had met and moved in with guitar player Ike Zimmerman and his family, and Ike became his tutor.  They practised together amongst the tombstones in the quiet of a local graveyard.   It is quite likely that the origin of the Faustian story came from another blues musician, named Tommy Johnson (no relation).   Tommy cultivated a rather dark image to help promote his act.  As part of this, according to his brother, he claimed to have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in exchange for mastery of the guitar.  Robert made no such claim.  Tommy lived until 1956, whereas Robert only lived until 1938 (he was 27 when died and so later became a member of the 27 club.)   Almost nothing was known about Robert until much later when some serious research was done and the story attached to the more mysterious figure.  When I first heard of Robert in the 1980’s there were no known photographs of him.  Even today there are only two.  Robert recorded just 29 songs between 1936 and ‘37.  Like him, most of these tunes have attained mythic status: “Cross Road Blues,” “Love In Vain,” “I Believe I’ll Dust My Broom,” and “Sweet Home Chicago” are all Robert’s compositions.  The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton and the Allman Brothers have all recorded his songs.  In 1933 Robert settled in Helena, Arkansas, where he met and played with bluesmen Robert Nighthawk, Elmore James,  and Howlin’ Wolf amongst others.  Helena, Arkansas was only a little out of my way on the way back to Memphis, so that was my next destination.

Blues Trail HelenaAcross The Mighty Mississippi to Helena

The light was just starting to fade as I drove down Highway 49 through Lula and crossed the Mississippi River to enter Helena, Arkansas.  Now in serious decline, the town played a significant role in blues history.  It flourished during the steamboat era as a river port equipped with all music, gambling and night life the locals and deckhands could want.   It was also the birthplace of a major blues radio show that began broadcasting to the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta in 1941.

Ghosts of the Historic District

I visited the Delta Cultural Centre, which is well worth a visit, and then started to wander in the atmospheric historic district.  I immediately came across an iconic blues marker ‘Mississippi to Helena’.  The area was deserted and in many places tumbling down.  I stood in front of an abandoned storefront at 119 Missouri Street which used to house a juke joint called the Kit Kat Cafe.  This is one of the few places we know Robert Johnson actually played.   It was crumbling, and a faded and cracking picture in the window lent it an unsettling air.   I continued to wander.  In places the buildings are cordoned off as their tumble down state is so unsafe.  At 201 Frank Frost Street (shown here) I took a shot of a building which I later found out was featured in the documentary ‘In Search of Robert Johnson.’   It had broken windows and a large sign saying ‘NO LOITERING’.  I walked, entranced by the near ghost town, until there was no more light.  At that point the slightly spooky nature of Helena was greatly amplified and I returned to my vehicle in a hurry, suddenly keen to return to the bright lights of Memphis, Tennessee.

The Blues Trail – Memphis, Tennessee

At the age of 14 I was listening to a Pirate radio station broadcasting from the North Sea when I heard a track from George Thorogood and the Destroyers.  It was probably a song from from their self-titled album of 1977.  George was playing furious electric slide guitar and I had never heard anything like it.  The power of that sound, along with that of punk, especially the Sex Pistols, inspired me to get an electric guitar and play it hard.  Guitar driven music, especially the blues, has been part of my life ever since.

Nearly forty years later I found myself in Nashville, which is only a 3 hour drive from Memphis, which in turn is close to Mississippi and the Delta, so I took the opportunity do something I had wanted to do for many years: get on the blues trail.

Sun Studio

I started at Sun Studio, Memphis, one of the most revered landmarks in blues, country, rockabilly and rock and roll.   Originally the Memphis Recording Service, Sun was founded by by the equally legendary Sam Phillips  in 1950.  Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, B.B. King, Jerry Lee Lewis and many others started their recording careers there.  Once our tour guide arrived, the few of us that had gathered in the adjacent cafe which is the rendez-vous point for the tour, went upstairs to the museum where he told us the story of Sun – an extraordinary tale of one man’s vision and persistence.   Then he took us down to the studio to finish the story.  He told the tale well – with knowledge, humour and great timing.  The studio itself is tiny, but it is at is was in the 1950s, right down to the original acoustic tiling.  One wall is lined with guitars (including Scotty Moore’s) and there is a stack of vintage Fender amps against another.  When the tour finished, I got talking to the guide (or preacher as he refers to himself) and he was kind enough to show me the interior of the minuscule control room.  As I had a recording on my phone of  a track dedicated to Scotty Moore I asked him if I could play it in that hallowed space and he agreed.  It was a magic moment.

The Blues Trail MemphisBeale Street

There is a shuttle that runs from Sun Studio to Beale Street, which stops close to the Gibson Factory.  The factory offers a tour of Gibson’s Memphis facility, and being a guitarist who plays a Gibson ES-Les Paul made in the same factory, I was keen to see how it was created.   The tour guide walked us through the factory, pausing at the various stations dedicated to the shaping, assembling and finishing the instruments and providing us insights into the process.  It takes about three weeks to make one of their hollow body guitars .  Sadly, the facility is moving from Beale Street at some point, though Gibson say they are committed to retaining a presence in the Memphis area.  From Gibson I walked to Beale Street proper.  The area was created by an entrepreneur in 1841, and by the 1860s black traveling musicians had begun to perform there.  By the 1900s, Beale Street was largely African-American owned, lined with clubs, restaurants and shops and the home of W. C. Handy, known as the Father of the Blues and the creator of the “Blues on Beale Street”.  It continued to be home to the blues, and between the 1920s to the 1940s, Louis Armstrong, Muddy Waters, Albert King, Memphis Minnie, B. B. King, and other blues and jazz musicians played there, contributing to what became known as Memphis Blues.  B. B. King got his famous initials from his billing as there as “the Beale Street Blues Boy.”

Today Beale Street is a very much a tourist destination, but it has a unique look and feel and if you get into a bar with live music it is really special.  Of the shops, easily the most interesting is the old fashioned general store A. Schwab Trading Company, established in 1876.  It is housed in the oldest remaining building on Beale Street and contains the Beale Street Museum and two floors of quirky merchandise, including some hoodoo (folk magic) items.  Seeking give music, I found Vince Johnson and The Plantation All Stars at the atmospheric Blues Hall Juke Joint.  The picture of them was taken with a Leica Q, (f2.8, 1/100, ISO 3200).  I also saw Eric Hughes (solo) at the rather oddly-located wrestling themed King Jerry Lawler’s Hall of Fame.   Both were excellent.

Also on Beale Street is the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum – an exhibition by the Smithsonian Institution, which opened its doors in 2000.  The museum provides a journey from the rural origins of blues and soul in the 1930s, through the explosive growth driven by Sun and Stax labels up to the 1970s.  It’s worth a look, not least because it provides some insights into the lives of the black and white sharecroppers whose music so influenced blues and soul music.

Memphis BBQ

Still on Beale Street, I had lunch at the Blues City Cafe, a pint of Guinness at Silky O’Sullivan’s (you have to go to see the goats), and dinner at BB Kings Blues Club.   Much of the food on Beale street is Memphis-style barbecue, which is distinct from the other US regional BBQ styles of Kansas City, Texas and Carolina.  Memphis-style barbecue is usually pork ribs slow cooked in a pit prepared either “dry” or “wet”.   I had no idea what this meant before coming to Southern US.  The difference was explained to me at a visit to the One & Only BBQ. “Dry” ribs are covered with a dry rub and eaten without sauce, whilst “wet” ribs are covered with sauce throughout cooking.  Half wet, half dry is usually an option, and is what I tried. Portions are huge and the sides include devilled eggs, black-eyed peas and slaw mac-n-cheese.  There are many starter options, but I particularly enjoyed the Polish Kielbasa sausage – which was smoked, dusted in dry rub and grilled and served as part of a sausage and cheese platter – a Memphis tradition.   Being a tourist location, you’ll inevitably eat better off Beale Street than on it, but the location and live music more than make up for it.

Blues Trail MLK Room 306Room 306 of The Lorraine Motel

The story of the blues, and of the South, is closely entwined with the story of black Americans and their struggle for equal rights, so it no is surprise that the National Civil Rights Museum is located in Memphis.  In fact, the location is that of the assassination of Martin Luther King at The Lorraine Motel.   Dr King was staying at the motel in April 1968 when he came to Memphis to support a strike.  He was standing on the balcony of room 306 when he was fatally shot.   The room has been preserved exactly as it was during his stay, a wreath hangs from the balcony and two white cars from that era – a 1959 Dodge and a 1968 Cadillac are parked in front of the motel.   The picture of them and room 306 was again taken with a Leica Q (f8, 1/200, ISO 200).  The air of regret and respect from visitors is tangible as you stand in front of room.  The Motel is now the home of the Museum which guides visitors through five hundred years of history, from early slave resistance to the protests of the civil-rights movement.   It is a very worthwhile visit.  Reading about the motel afterwards, I learned that it has a strong connection to the blues as black musicians would stay at there while they were recording in Memphis, due to its long standing status as a safe haven for black visitors to Memphis.

The Blues Hall of Fame

Only two minutes walk from the National Civil Rights Museum is the Blues Hall of Fame.  Initially this was not a physical building, but a listing, started in 1980 by the Blues Foundation.   Many of my favourite blues artists were inducted in that first year, including Lightnin’ Hopkin, Son House, Howlin’ Wolf, Elmore James, Robert Johnson, B.B. King, Muddy Waters and T-Bone Walker.  The Memphis museum opened in 2015, and pays tribute to the 400 or so inductees. There are several galleries with interactive touchscreen displays for visitors to listen to music, watch videos, and read stories of the members of the Hall of Fame, and each gallery houses some memorabilia.

Graceland

No visit to Memphis is complete without a trip to Graceland.  From the perspective of any musical journey, Elvis’s fusion of blues and country into rockabilly was a unique achievement.  It also laid the foundations for rock and roll.  The visit completed the circle from my start point on the blues trail at Sun Studio.  That was where owner, Sam Phillips, who in 1954 was looking for a white singer with a black blues feel, put Elvis, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black together.  This resulted in their first single, a cover of blues singer Arthur Crudup’s 1949 blues standard “That’s All Right Mama”.  The song was recorded with just the trio playing, without drums.  The single sold around 20,000 copies, which was not enough to chart nationally, but it reached number 4 in the local Memphis charts and Elvis, Scotty and Bill were on their way.  Graceland is about 9 miles from Downtown Memphis, close to the Mississippi border. It is preserved as it was appointed and decorated last, in the mid 1970s.  That was when Elvis transformed the Southern Colonial mansion into a Rock n Roll palace.  Accordingly, it is fabulously over the top.  The Jungle Room has green shag pile carpet not only underfoot…but on the ceiling. The TV Room, with its mirrored ceiling and multiple TV screens, was apparently inspired by a comment from the President at the time who watched multiple televisions at once.  The Pool Room has some 350 yards of fabric covering the walls and ceiling. It is hugely opulent, which is in strong contrast to the next part of the blues trail which took me deep into Mississippi and across the river into Arkansas.

 

Darkness in Las Vegas

Dark Vegas

Through the eyes of a lifetime resident

There are still plenty of people in Las Vegas who remember the days when the mob ran Las Vegas.  On my last trip I met a couple of them – a barman and a taxi driver.  The taxi driver had a business card that described him as ‘driver and lifetime Las Vegas resident’.  He described how he and his mother had both worked for in mob-run casinos and lamented the decline in standards and increases in petty crime in the city since the mob had lost control.  Asking a few questions the apparently utopian picture turned out to full of darkness.  He admitted that now and again those on the edge of the city would find that their dog would bring back a human body part “sometimes a femur, sometimes a skull” from a desert burial.  I commented that this was a pretty significant downside but he was adamant that this was not a real issue on the basis that everyone knew that if you were stupid enough to steal from the mafia you would be killed.  I remained unconvinced.  He told me about the mob museum (Formally know as ‘The National Museum of Organized Crime and Law Enforcement’ which is well worth a visit.

A .38 revolver, a wad of hundreds and a small bag of white powder

The barman, who I’ll call Michael,  told me a couple of stories about legendary mobster  Anthony Spilotro portrayed in the Martin Scorsese movie Casino as Nicky Santoro.   Michael was sitting next to Spilotro at a bar where he was working but off-duty.  There was a lot of talk in the city about a very senior level falling out between Spilotro and his fellow mobsters, Michael slid down a couple of stools saying ‘I hope you don’t mind Tony, I just don’t want to catch a bullet’.  Spilotro laughed, but two days later he was found dead, buried in a cornfield.  In the movie he was buried still breathing, but this the facts are less remarkable; later mob testimony revealed he as beaten to death in a basement and moved to the burial site.  Michael was also asked to retrieve and return Spilotro’s wife’s handbag (or purse as he put it) from a bar where she had left it.  He couldn’t resist taking a peek at the contents.  Inside the handbag was a .38 snub nose revolver, a huge wad of hundred dollar bills and a small bag of white powder…

Spilotro’s story is an interesting one: he came into contact with organised crime at an early age as his parents ran a Chicago restaurant that was adopted by the mob.  He became a “made” man in the 1960s and was sent to act as the mob representative in Las Vegas in the 1970s.  He founded a burglary operation, known as the Hole in the Wall Gang with his brother; it was their unsubtle entry methods that earned them the gang nickname.  Unfortunately for Spilotro this overt criminal behaviour led to him being blacklisted by the casinos, which compromised his official mob representative role.   This did not sit well with his bosses and associates.  In January 1986, at a high level mob the problem of Spilotro and Las Vegas was debated and the agreed conclusion was ‘hit him’.

A Lecia Q in downtown Las Vegas

On that trip I spent most of my spare time in Downtown Las Vegas, which for me is by far the most interesting part of the city; it is full of character and rather gritty in comparison to the high end experience of the strip.    You can find the pictures from this and my other trips at the Las Vegas gallery on this site.  There is also an earlier blog on Las Vegas.  The accompanying picture for this post was shot with my Leica Q at f1.8, 1/5000 of a second with -0.6 EV, using the electronic shutter.   The leaf shutter on the Leica Q is virtually silent and will go to 1/2000s after which the electronic shutter takes over on the way to a maximum 1/16000s – making the Leica’s fast aperture usable even in bright conditions.   What I like about this shot is the strong full-length shadow, the inclusion of the big Fremont street neon signs in the background and the gentleman’s white jacket, hat and shoes which contrasts nicely with the dark tones that dominate the shot.  The Leica Q’s incredible sharpness on the subject compared to the background helps make that contrast even stronger.

Encounters with Japanese Dragons

Encounters with Dragons screenThe r

“In Japan, the dragon is a good guy, not a bad guy.”    This was the comment of our guide in Kyoto on a recent trip across Japan, where we had a few memorable encounters with Japanese dragons.

Benevolent, auspicious, just, a bringer of good fortune and wealth, the Japanese dragon (Ryū), like its Chinese ancestor, is an ancient mythical creature that is very different from its malevolent, treasure-hoarding Western equivalent.  Like many mythological creatures, it is a composite beast and has the head of a camel, the eyes of a hare, the antlers of a deer, the neck of a snake, the scales of a carp, the paws of a tiger and the claws of an eagle.

Our first dragon encounter was in Shinjuku, Tokyo, a name that refers to both one of the 23 city wards in the metropolis and more commonly to the large entertainment, business and shopping area around Shinjuku Station – the world’s busiest railway station.  Painted on a wall behind a statue of a female deity playing a lyre lurked a fabulous white dragon on a black background surrounded by stylised swirls, it looked like some great, nameless tattoo artist had decided to take their artwork to a much grander scale.   I was mesmerised and spent some time shooting the combination of the statue and the dragon mural with my Leica Q whilst my companions retired to a nearby bar.  You can see both this image and the others mentioned in this post in the Japan Gallery.

A long history

The Asian dragon’s origin predates written history, but had achieved its present form of a long, scaled serpentine body, small horns, long whiskers, bushy brows, clawed feet and sharp teeth by the 9th Century, by which time it was part of Buddhist mythology as a protector of the Buddha and Buddhist law.    These traditions were adopted by the Japanese and the character for dragon (龍) is much used in temple names.  Dragon carvings also adorn many temple structures and most Japanese Zen temples have a dragon painted on the ceiling of their dharma halls, often painted inside a circle in the centre of the ceiling.

In Kyoto

At the Zen temple of Kennin-Ji, in the Gion district of Kyoto, we had two dragon encounters in rapid succession.  The first was an incredible dragon painting on a sliding fusuma door, which is shown in this post.  The horns are larger than normal, the whiskers are so long they look almost like tentacles, and the dragon appears to be swimming through time and space; peering at us with us eyes that give a hint of otherworldly vision and knowledge.   The second was the vast painting of Twin Dragons that covers the entire ceiling of the Hattou (dharma hall) of Kennin-Ji, the oldest temple in Kyoto.  Kennin-Ji was founded in 1202, though the earliest surviving structure the is the Chokushimon (Imperial Messenger or Arrow Gate) that is dated to  from the Kamakura Period  of 1185-1333.  This building still bears the scars from the Onin War that reduced much of Kyoto to ashes during the 15th century in the form of  arrow marks.  The dharma hall that houses the Twin Dragons was constructed later, in 1765.  The dragons themselves were painted in ink on paper by Koizumi Junsaku (1924 – 2012), a noted painter and pottery artist, between 2000 and 2002, and installed in 2002 to mark the 800th anniversary of the founding of the temple.   The dragons cover 175 square meters rather than occupying the usual circle in the centre of the ceiling.  This was at the bidding of the abbot of Kennin-ji who requested that the artist make dragons “rampage across the ceiling”.  They rampage in spectacular fashion and I spent a good while admiring them.  A bought a copy of the painting and it is now framed and up on the wall at my home in Oxfordshire.

In modern Japan, Zen temples and Shinto shrines often stock their garden ponds with carp, which grow to great size in a spectacular range of colors.  Keeping them is partially inspired by Koi-no-Takinobori, the Japanese name for a Chinese legend of a carp that became a dragon after swimming up a waterfall.  We saw many incredible Koi in Tokyo and Kyoto, but I will not count them as dragons.

A water spirit

Unlike the Western dragon which is essentially a winged fire-breathing lizard, and a creature of the earth, the Japanese dragon is a wingless (but sky dwelling) water spirit.   At the Hakone Shrine (Hakone Jinja), at the foot of Mount Hakone and along the shores of the lake Ashinoko, our dragon encounter was at a Shinto shrine dedicated to the deity Ryujin (龍神).  Ryujin is associated with rain, good catches for fishermen, and with agriculture.  According to the Encyclopedia of Shinto ‘The dragon kami is connected with agriculture because of its characteristic as a water kami. Prayers for rain were performed at rivers, swamps, ponds, and deep pools which were regarded as the abodes of the ryūjin.’  At the shrine is an extraordinary  Chōzuya (purification basin), where holy water spouts from each of the nine dragon’s heads.  It was the dragon highlight of the trip.  Four dragon encounters is not a large number, but they were of the highest quality and I will never forget them.

10 Days in Japan

trees gardenBetween 13th and 23rd May 2017, I travelled across Japan with a small group of friends on a trip organised by Trailfinders.  I have wanted to go for more than a decade and my expectations were sky high, and I am happy to say I wasn’t disappointed.  I wasn’t sure what lenses to take with me, so I took both my Leica Q and the Nikon Df with 20mm, 35mm and 85mm fast primes.  I ending up using the Leica Q (28mm) and the Nikon Df with the 85mm fitted almost exclusively, both slung across my chest in readiness.  You can see the gallery here.  This was our itinerary:

Day 1 – Arrival in Tokyo

We flew from London to Tokyo on British Airways.  Given the time difference we arrived with time to spare on our first day, which gave us the opportunity to explore the area around the excellent Park Hotel in Shiodome, our base in the metropolis.  Shiodome is close to the Ginza District, the upmarket shopping area of Tokyo, so had a short walk around the area and a lunchtime beer at the Ginza Lion Beer Hall with an accompaniment of delicious hoho-niku (tuna cheeks).  We noticed the displays of plastic food (sampuru) outside the beer hall, which seem to be ubiquitous in Japan.  None of us had slept well on the flight and our rooms had not been ready on arrival, so we headed back to the hotel to clean up and rest.  On the way back we came across Hakuhninkan Toy Park, which introduced us to the mad world of Japanese toys and collectables.  That evening we ate at Tsukada Nojo which was most notable for moromi-miso; a chunky condiment made from miso served with raw vegetables, of which we could not get enough.

Day 2 – Tokyo

  • On our first full day in Tokyo we were accompanied by our guide Akiko, who was very knowledgable and helpful.  We headed for the Meiji Shrine (Meiji Jingū), in Shibuya, a Shinto shrine dedicated to the Emperor Meiji and his wife.  Entering through an enormous Torii gate (made from a 1,500 year old tree) we passed into a large forested area which covers 175 acres and consists of around 120,000 trees of 365 different species from all over Japan.  It is both tranquil and beautiful.  There is also a huge decorative display of sake barrels (kazaridaru) in the grounds,  which relates to the offering of sake every year to the  deities at Meiji Jingu Shrine.  As we walked though the three Torii gates, Akiko told us that we should not walk through the centre line of the gate.  This is called the Sei-Chu and is the area designated for the enshrined gods to pass through.
  • Being British and in need of a restorative cup of tea we stopped at a Cat Cafe located near the entrance to the Shrine.  Japan holds the record for the most cat cafés in the world, with as many as 39 in Tokyo.  I took a bit of a risk entering the place – I am asthmatic and allergic to cats, which is not a great combination, but observed the rather bizarre spectacle without consequences.
  • Next was Takeshita Street or Takeshita-dōri, a shopping street in Harajuku, which was packed with fashion concious teenagers, followed by Omotesandō, an upmarket tree-lined avenue, once the official approach to Meiji-jingū. These days it is a fashionable and architecturally notable shopping strip.
  • After a spot of excellent sushi we moved on to Sensō-ji, an ancient Buddhist temple located in Asakusa. The temple is dedicated to Guanyin, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and is one of the most widely visited spiritual sites in the world.  We approached it though the spectacular Thunder Gate, and a walk down the wonderful Nakamise Shopping Street.  I found a gorgeous picture of the Thunder Gate in one of the stalls, which I was keen to buy, but the price tag was far out of reach as it was an original.  Prints will, the vendor, told me be available in about 30 years.  Not far from the temple we came across a small park with the most spectacular collection of koi we had ever seen.
  • We moved on to Kappabashi, or Kitchen Town and visited the Kamata knife shop. I enjoy cooking, and love Japanese steel, so I purchased a very beautiful chef’s knife made by Ryusen.
  • We returned to the hotel via a cruise of the Sumida river and ate in the hotel, quite worn out.

Day 3 – Tokyo

  • The Tsukuji fish market is the biggest wholesale fish and seafood market in the world and is located within walking distance of Shiodome, between the Sumida River and Ginza.  Visiting it involves making a choice of either arriving at 3 AM to queue to see the tuna market open at 5 AM, or arriving by 10 AM to see market wind down.  We chose the latter.  The market handles more than 400 different types of seafood (many of which look like nothing on earth) and the place is a whirr of activity – most notably the ‘Turret Trucks’, which are extremely hazardous to the unwary.   Whilst we missed the tuna market, we did see tuna being carved with extremely long knives, variously called called oroshi-hōchō, maguro-bōchō, or hanchō-hōchō.
  • We took the tube to Shibuya Crossing, considered a must see for many visitors, and located outside the Hachiko exit of Shibuya Station. This exit is named after a famous dog, whose statue has become a popular meeting place.  Shibuya Crossing effectively is a crossing point at the meeting of five roads in one of the busiest parts of the most populous city in the world, and the spectacle of up to 1,000 people crossing the road concurrently is quite astonishing.
  • I was keen to visit a guitar shop in Japan, particularly as Fender Japan are noted for being quite innovative.  G’Club, Shibuya did not disappoint and I purchased a low cost, light weight Japan-only Fender Telecaster that plays extremely well.
  • That evening we took in Akihabar (or Electic Town), which is  famous for its many electronics shops, its otaku (diehard fan) culture, and many anime/managa shops before exploring East Shinjuku/Kabukichu, in all its neon splendour.  It is a red light district and supposed to be somewhat edgy, but we were so mesmerised by the neon lights, if there was any menace there it passed us by.  We were not tempted to enter any of the establishments that beckoned us.

Continue reading “10 Days in Japan”

Caravaggio – The original master of darkness and light

Always the same Jesus

Beyond Caravaggio

Beyond Caravaggio at the National Gallery is an exhibition that examines the influence of one of art’s true originals, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610). Whilst the exhibition focuses on his influence on art via the Caravaggisti and later followers (Only 6 of the 49 paintings in the show are actually by Caravaggio), Caravaggio’s influence reaches well into to the present day; his use of everyday subjects and of dramatic lighting are cited as an influence on director Martin Scorsese, the photographer David LaChapelle and visual artist Mat Collishaw.

A turbulent life

Caravaggio lived a short, turbulent life that was celebrated and notorious in equal measure.  He was orphaned to the plague as a boy of six.  At eleven he apprenticed in Milan but left in haste after wounding a police officer.  At 21 he moved to Rome and gained fame with the success of his first public commissions, but he was regularly in court and jailed on several occasions.  He was known for his drinking and whoring as well his brawling.  His powerful supporters helped smooth things over with the authorities but there was only so much they could do to contain a man overflowing with violence.  According to the German art historian Joachim von Sandrart (1606–88) Caravaggio spend his time in Rome “in the company of his young friends, mostly brash, swaggering fellows—painters and swordsmen—who lived by the motto nec spe, nec metu, ‘without hope, without fear.’”  He was, as Time Out noted, a real Baroque and Roller.

In 1606 he had a death sentence pronounced against him by the Pope after he killed a well known pimp in a knife fight.  He spent the rest of his life on the run in fear of his life in Malta, Naples and Sicily. He slept in this clothes and always had his dagger to hand.  His art, unsurprisingly, became darker and he was horribly mutilated by his enemies when they caught up with him in Naples in 1609.  It is likely that they inflicted a sfregio (facial wound), as a visible sign of revenge. He died, still on the run, in 1610 aged 38.

Chiaroscuro

Caravaggio is most famous for his dramatic use of light, an extreme variant of chiaroscuro, using dark shadows to produce strong contrasts between light and dark with an incredible tonal range.  With this he captured form and added drama to his scenes in a way that no one before him had accomplished.  The scenes he painted were spot lit from above; he once had a run in with a landlord for breaking a ceiling to let in light.  It is so modern looking that David Hockney has referred to it as  ‘Hollywood lighting’.   There are claims by Italian researchers that his chiaroscuro is based on a form of photographic technique – the suggestion is that Caravaggio projecting the image of his subjects onto canvas using a lens and mirror and that he treated the canvas with a light-sensitive substance made from crushed fireflies, in order to fix the image.  This hypothesis remains unproven.

A new kind of naturalism

He combined dramatic lighting with a new kind of naturalism – painting people from the streets directly from life, and with incredible levels of often dirty hyperrealism created without drawing beforehand.  He populated biblical scenes with Roman prostitutes, beggars and thieves, bringing the sacred and the gutter together as he did so and dividing popular opinion.  He also applied the same level of detail and realism to still life as to the people in his paintings.  Great emphasis can be seen in the still life on the table in front of Christ at the ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ (1601), for example.  It was this combination of dramatic lighting and realism that created the pictorial and narrative power he became renowned for.  In an era when great art required powerful visual story telling, he elevated this to new heights.
Caravaggio was hugely influential throughout Italy and this spread to France, Belgium and the Netherlands and the exhibition seeks to show his influence by bringing together a collection of Caravaggio-inspired pieces.  These are my top three highlights of the show:
  • The Taking of Christ, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.  Painted at the height of Caravaggio’s fame, The Taking of Christ is a high contrast, dramatic treatment of the familiar biblical story of betrayal.  It is set in the garden of Gethsemane rendered as indeterminate, dark space, lit by the moon and, weakly, by lantern held by Carravagio who peers in from the edge of the scene.   (The shot on this post shows that image of Caravaggio in the background).  The painting offers a flash illuminated freeze frame of three soldiers in black armour, their faces largely hidden, who have come with Judas to seize Christ  – one of them grasping his throat with a mailed fist.  The brutality of the state is in contrast with the calm and meek Christ, who offers no resistance, whilst St. John the Evangelist flees from the violence in anguish.   It is dense, mysterious and incredibly dramatic.
  • Christ displaying his Wounds,  Giovanni Antonio Galli (nicknamed Lo Spadarino because his father was a sword smith).  Perhaps the greatest work of one of the most talented and inventive of Caravaggio’s disciples, this painting is as hyper real is it is strange.   A pale Jesus, lit by light that appears to come from nowhere, and naked except for his shroud, holds the wound on this side apart with hands holed by nails.  He makes direct eye contact with us with an expression that is full of accusation
  • The Martyrdom of Saint Bartholomew by Jusepe de Ribera.  Saint Bartholomew’s executioner sharpens his knife in preparation of the flaying his about to perform – the knife and steel forming a symbolic cross.  Bartholomew stretches out his arms to heaven, creating a powerful diagonal, his face lit by grace as much as light.  The executioner’s expression is inscrutable, which makes the painting quite frightening.

A lucky shot

I was looking for an image to accompany this post from my day’s shooting when I came across the shot above, which was taken outside the gallery after I had visited it.  I hadn’t considered it as  a candidate for this purpose as I hadn’t noticed the image of Caravaggio’s face from The Taking of Christ in the background.  When I did I was delighted, as the subject of the shot is carrying a placard reading ‘JESUS CHRIST the same yesterday today and for ever.’  This combination was pleasing to me; there is Caravaggio, in a detail from a painting from 1602, linked to a message about Christ being the same today as he was in the past.  The picture was shot with a Leica Q at f2.8 at 1/8000 sec.  The sunlight was very bright after the heavy rain that had fallen earlier so I used -1 ev of exposure compensation to stop the highlights blowing out.   It is a high contrast shot, which is entirely appropriate for the purpose.  Between the man with the placard and Caravaggio there are also two figures that bring something to the shot.  A woman, dressed in light clothing,  scrutinises the street preacher, who is dressed in black, whilst in the middle distance a girl shades her eyes as she looks at him also.  Both these figures provide detail on different planes, which is generally desirable.

 

Shooting Las Vegas

Gambling Las VegasOrigins

Las Vegas is undoubtedly one of the stranger places in the USA.   Its sheer scale, the juxtaposition of replicas of famous landmarks, the relentless 24 hour gambling and the fantasy element of the place all contribute to that strangeness.  It is also hard for me to get over it’s origins, summarised here by history.com:

A desert metropolis built on gambling, vice and other forms of entertainment…the city was founded by ranchers and railroad workers but quickly found that its greatest asset was not its springs but its casinos. Las Vegas’s embrace of Old West-style freedoms—gambling and prostitution—provided a perfect home for East Coast organized crime. Beginning in the 1940s, money from drugs and racketeering built casinos and was laundered within them. Visitors came to partake in what the casinos offered: low-cost luxury and the thrill of fantasies fulfilled.

The chain of events that led to Mafia involvement in the development of the city is straightforward enough. The state of Nevada legalized gambling in 1931, but no one paid attention until after World War II, when the Mafia, in the form of Meyer Lansky and Bugsy Siegel, saw business potential.   Siegel opened the showcase 105 room Flamingo Hotel and Casino in December 1946 and whilst he paid the ultimate price for skimming from Mafia operations the Flamingo was successful under Lansky and other crime families moved in.  Properties such as the 1,000 room Stardust, the Desert Inn, and the Riviera followed.   In 1959 the Revolution in Cuba removed President Batista, who had been in league with Lansky, and with him the gambling concessions he had made to the mafia.  It also made Havana a no go destination for many high rollers who re-routed to Las Vegas, accelerating its development.     Today a significant proportion of the largest hotels in the world are on situated the Strip.

Downtown

Downtown Las Vegas, the original site of the town and gambling district of Las Vegas, centres on Fremont Street.  It has had significant investment of late but still appears to be the poor relation to The Strip, or offers a more vintage experience, depending on your perspective.  On one trip I had breakfast with a fellow photographer before heading out to Fremont Street and we discussed our approaches to photography.  Fred is an out-and-out street photographer; his interest is in people, pure and simple and he has a practised technique to get in close and yet not be noticed.  I work differently as I am very interested in the relationship between the background and people in the frame.  I suppose that makes me more of a travel photographer; I want to capture something of the spirit of place wherever I am at the time.  In the shot here I wanted to combine the large ‘Gambling’ sign with the women dressed as show girls. For this shot I used a circular polariser, which required an ISO setting of 2,500 for f8, but the boost in contrast was worth it.  The noise the Leica Q produces is relatively filmic and if it appears excessive I apply Topaz DeNoise.   The other shots from my various trips to the desert metropolis are in the Las Vegas gallery.

A Game Changing Camera: The Leica Q

Objects, Deal MarketBefore the Leica Q

Before the Leica Q, I have never considered owning a Leica.  I have been 100% loyal to Nikon for film SLRs and DSLRs (I am now on my 4th generation – the Df), though that isn’t the case when it comes to compact cameras, where I’ve typically used Canon ultra compacts like the Canon S120.   Recently I started to wonder about getting a large sensor compact camera which would be more suited to street photography than my DSLR or the Canon S120.  This interest was triggered by a friend of mine purchasing a Sony RX1 which packs a full frame sensor into a relatively small package.  Initially I didn’t consider the Sony due to cost – at £2,700 this was no trivial purchase and instead looked closely at the The Fujifilm X100T and Olympus OMD 5 Mk II.  Both of these cameras have retro looks and plenty of external controls, which personally I prefer and were far less expensive than the Sony.

Options

The Fujifilm X100T resembles a Leica range finder, is competitively priced and is equipped with an APS-C  16.3MP  sensor, a 23mm f/2 lens (35mm equivalent) and a hybrid electronic/optical EVF. Its image processor is effective in low-light and at high ISOs and there is a well regarded film simulation mode.  If you do a search for ‘best camera for street photography’ it features well and so looked like a strong contender.  The OM-D E5 Mk II is a rather different camera, as it offers a choice of lenses with a 16MP Four Thirds CMOS sensor.  It has an electronic EVF and is also equipped with a tilt screen, 5 axis stabilisation and environmental sealing, none of which are present on the Fujifilm.  It also had its fans when it came to street photography, not least because of its tilt screen and image stabilisation.  Lastly, the f2.8 APS C Ricoh GR II (one of the few fixed 28mm equivalent cameras) is also viewed by many (notably Erik Kim) as an ideal street photography camera.

 Temptation

Then I read started to read reviews of the Leica Q.  Pocket-Lint described it as “the best fixed-lens full-frame compact ever made” but it was Craig Mod‘s blog that really got me thinking.  It was a six month field test in Asia and was one of the positive and compelling reviews I have ever read of a camera.

“Make no mistake: The Q is a surgical, professional machine. It pairs best-of-class modern technology (superb autofocus, an astounding electronic view finder, workable isos up to and beyond 10,000, a fast processor, beefy sensor) with a minimalist interface packed into a small body, all swaddled in the iconic industrial design for which Leica has become famous. The result is one of the least obtrusive, most single-minded image-capturing devices I’ve laid hands on.”

“If the gf1 so many years ago set in motion an entirely new genre of camera with micro four-thirds, the Q epitomizes it. If the iPhone is the perfect everyperson’s mirrorless, then the Q is some specialist miracle. It should not exist. It is one of those unicorn-like consumer products that so nails nearly every aspect of its being — from industrial to software design, from interface to output — that you can’t help but wonder how it clawed its way from the r&d lab. Out of the meetings. Away from the committees. How did it manage to maintain such clarity in its point of view?”

I believe that in hindsight… the Leica Q will be seen as one of the greatest fixed-prime-lens travel photography kits of all time.”

After reading that review I realised I wanted a Leica Q quite badly – but at close to £3,000 could I justify the purchase? Continue reading “A Game Changing Camera: The Leica Q”