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”

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.

The Many Pleasures of Oxford

Radcliffe Camera OxfordAn ancient place

The exact date of the foundation of the city of Oxford is uncertain, but the place is ancient.  Sited on an important crossing point across the Thames, which formed the frontier between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Wessex and Mercia, Oxford started as a ford for oxen (Oxenaforda).   The castle (now just a mound) dates from 1071 and the oldest standing building, the Saxon tower of St Michael at the Northgate, was built in 1040. The Domesday book records the right of the town’s Freemen to graze animals in Port Meadow free of charge – a right still exercised today. The University started in monastic halls, though none of these survived the suppression of the monasteries in the 1530s. The city was well established as an academic centre by the 13th century with University, Balliol, and Merton Colleges all founded during that century.

Academic life in Oxford was characterised by murder in the stories of ’90s TV detective Inspector Morse, and this violence in academia was foreshadowed by a turbulent relationship between Oxford’s town people and students. The most notorious incident occurred in 1354 in the Swyndlestock Tavern (a bank today), when two students took issue with the innkeeper about the quality of his wine. This dispute quickly escalated into an armed conflict that lasted three days and resulted in around 90 deaths.  Despite incidents like this and regular scholastic riots, by the mid 14th century the University was well established enough for Edward III to pay tribute to it for both its contribution to learning and the services to the state of Oxford graduates.  Several colleges were founded every century and there are now 38 in total.

Reversals

Oxford’s growth was inevitably accompanied by some  reversals.  In the 12th century a fire burned the city to the ground and the black death of the 14th century reduced the population heavily; as did the sweating sickness epidemic of the 16th century.  The university benefited from these depopulations by buying up vacant property and continuing to grow its estates.

In the late 18th century Oxford connected to Coventry and the Thames, and in the mid In 1844, the Great Western Railway linked Oxford with London.  The city became more industrial when the automotive industry was established in nearby Cowley by William Morris, who built the Morris Garage in Longwall street in 1910.  The need for more space bought a move to a factory 1913 at Cowley and mass production followed, resulting in  Cowley expanding into a large industrial centre.  Despite its canal and railway links, the city had remained a tight knit , conservative and academic town, with the the university press the only large-scale employer.  The car industry transformed Oxford into one of the major industrial cities of southern England, though happily the architectural gems of the old city have been well preserved, also being spared the devastation meted out to so many other cities during World War II.

The sights of Oxford

As you might expect from such a historic city, there are numerous sights to be enjoyed in Oxford, which particularly photogenic, though it is often very crowded, especially in the summer. Here are my top ten:

  1. Cowley Road Festival OxfordThe cobbled Radcliffe Square containing the iconic Radcliffe Camera (part of the Bodleian Library), and surrounded by the ancient trio of Brasenose College, All Souls College and the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, with its excellent view from the top of the tower.
  2. The old pubs of the city, including the Kings Arms (1607), near Radcliffe Square; the Eagle and Child, frequented by J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and located on St Giles; the old coaching inn of the Lamb and Flag, also on St Giles; the 13th century Turf Tavern, and the Bear, one of the oldest of all, with its wood panels and collection of 4,500 ties.
  3. The Covered Market, which opened in 1774 and contains a fantastic selection of fresh produce, cafes and boutique stalls.
  4. Bohemian Jericho, which contains Freud, one of the most notable cocktail bars in the city, located behind the ancient looking Greek columns of St Paul’s Church on Walton Street and the excellent Indian cuisine of the Standard, also on the same street.
  5. The Sheldonian Theatre, designed by Christopher Wren for the University with its busts of the Philosophers or Emperors.
  6. Christ Church Meadow which borders the Rivers Cherwell and Isis (the local name for the Thames) which is ideal for a stroll.  The buildings of Oxford’s largest college are also very beautiful, though even busier now with visitors since the filming of the Harry Potter films.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland were also inspired and written there.  The Tom Tower is one of the most imposing sights – the upper part of the tower was which was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, who had himself been a student at the college.
  7. The eclectic collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum, founded by Lieutenant-General Augustus Pitt Rivers, an anthropologist who collected more than 20,000 objects from around the British Empire.
  8. The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, on Beaumont Street, which was the world’s first university museum, and will content the culturally curious for several hours at a time.
  9. The ethnically diverse restaurants, shops and people of Cowley Road, with its annual carnival. This started in 2000 and now attracts crowds of up to 45,000 people, with live music and food stalls outside the many restaurants.
  10. The ancient grazing land of Port Meadow and the nearby pub The Trout, located on the banks of the Thames.

I lived in Oxford in the late ’80s and early ’90s, moving up from Deal in Kent, my home town.  Initially I rented a room in a crumbling gothic mansion in Norham Gardens, where I taught English to foreign students.  It was post graduate house populated by academics including a semiotician, several mathematicians and a philosopher.  I was asked to show my rather less distinguished Degree certificate to the landlady before I was able to move in.  Later, as Academic Representative for a German language school, I lived in a damp basement flat in Iffley Road – which gave me the opportunity to get to know the nearby Cowley Road.   During that time I came to be very fond of the City of Oxford and have lived in the county ever since.  I have been photographing the Radcliffe Camera for over 20 years, but the image included in this post is the first one I actually feel does it any justice.  It was taken on a wet, cold evening in January 2014 when hardly anyone was around and the sky was full of drama.  I took the shot with an old school 24mm  ƒ/2.8D prime lens originally designed for film cameras mounted on a Nikon D600 (a troublesome body I intend to trade in for a D500 at some point).  The Emperor’s head and the Cowley Road Festival shots were both taken on a Nikon Df with an AF-S 24-120mm ƒ/4 lens.

In Praise of Deal

I recently returned from a Christmas break in Deal, Kent.  It is where I spent the first 18 years of my life and is still very special to both me and my children.  We stayed in an eighteenth century cottage in Middle Street, which is in the heart of the conservation area (the first in Kent) – where the press gangs and sailors of Nelson’s navy once roamed and one of the most beautiful streets in England.

The Ship Inn, Deal
The Ship Inn, Deal

Deal is steeped in history – originally known as Addelam, it is mentioned in the Doomsday book, and is unique in once having been a port without a harbour.  Instead, the anchorage known as The Downs located between the Deal shoreline and the notorious ‘ship swallower’ of the Goodwin Sands  provided shelter for ships in the channel, and Deal became a thriving port.  Over time the Downs and the maritime traffic it generated made Deal worthy of protection by castles in the town itself and at nearby Sandown and Walmer and to become home to the Royal Marines.

In 1702 it was described as one of the four great ports of England, along with Portsmouth, Rochester and Plymouth and the town formed part of the defences of what became known as “the invasion coast”.  Deal also had a unique status conferred upon it by Royal Charter in the 12th century which established the town as one of the confederation of five ports (The Cinque Ports) to serve the crown with ships as the need arose. In return the towns received exemption from tax and tolls.  This led to extensive smuggling, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Deal’s smuggling activities were so notorious that Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger had the town’s luggers (large, two masted open boats) burned on the beach.  Deal’s boatmen also went to sea to for salvage and to save the lives of shipwreck victims and there has been a lifeboat stationed at nearby Walmer since the mid 19th century.  There has also been a pier at Deal from the same period, though the present one dates from the mid 20th century.

There are many pleasures to be had whilst staying in Deal.  Here’s ten of my favourites things to do, in no particular order:

  1. A stroll along the broad promenade and then onto the pier (said to be the same length as the Titanic but actually 200 ft longer)
  2. A walk through the winding narrow streets of the conversation area to admire the restored cottages and town houses, and perhaps to visit one of the fine old pubs like The Ship Inn, The Deal Hoy or the Royal Hotel (where Admiral Nelson frequently stayed.  Nelson also donated the tomb of Captain Parker, inscribed “My gallant good friend and able assistant”, which can be found in St George’s Churchyard.)
  3. Coffee or a bite to eat in the Black Douglas (run by the descendants of the Scottish knight)
  4. Sitting out on the seafront in front of the picturesque Kings Arms
  5. Shopping for fresh fish at Jenkin’s fishmongers
  6. Lunch or dinner at The Courtyard Oyster Bar and Restaurant
  7. Browsing in the boutiques of the High Street (Deal was inaugural High Street of the year for the Daily Telegraph in 2014)
  8. Visiting my folks, who still live in Walmer, or my friends ‘The Turnips’ (You don’t know them of course, but I can assure they are quite wonderful Deal and Walmer folk)
  9. A visit to the nearby visit to the picturesque former fishing village of Kingsdown immediately south of Walmer and the beachside pub The Zetland Arms
  10. And of course…taking pictures of one of my favourite places in the world – my Deal Gallery can be found here

Route 66 & Monument Valley Road Trip

Route 66 Ranch House CafeThe typical advice you will find on the web about combining Route 66 and Monument Valley on a trip is ‘don’t’, and I will admit that we (myself and two old friends) cranked out some substantial mileage in 8 days to accomplish this (2,232 miles in all, taking in Antelope Canyon and Death Valley for good measure).  It was well worth it.  Taking a large vehicle like a Chevy Suburban (in FBI black) helped.  My gallery for the Route 66 shots is here.  Our planning was sketchy, but here’s our itinerary:

  • London to Dallas/Fort Forth
  • Margaritas and dinner at Javier’s, Dallas, which is a fine establishment.
  • Morning in Dallas, visited the 6th Floor Museum, which is sombre but well worth the visit.  None of us give much credence to conspiracy theories but all agreed something wasn’t right with the conventional story.  18 witnesses disappeared… Our taxi driver, Charlie Ratcliff, of Cowboy Cars (+1 214 284 9919) was a witness who didn’t disappear.  He saw the shooting as a boy and can be seen in the Zapruder footage with his father.  He gives tours of the city, though we were pressed for time and could not take him up on his offer.
  • Drove to Amarillo, Texas.  Passed the leaning water tower at Groom, Texas (this is 1 of 2 things to see or do in Groom according to Trip Advisor).  We had dinner at the Big Texan, a well known Route 66 waypoint.  Kitsch does not do it justice, though the steak was a little disappointing given the hype.  We were taken to and from our hotel in a battered town car with steer’s horns on the front.  We avoided the 72 ounce steak challenge.
  • Headed back onto Route 66 and stopped at Tucumcari, New Mexico to take some shots and have a coffee at the Circa Espresso Bar.
  • Drove to Sante Fe, New Mexico.  Our route took us through Gallup and stopped to see the El Rancho Hotel, another Route 66 waypoint.  On arriving at the beautiful city of Santa Fe we sampled the fine beer and pizza on the balcony at the Draft Station with a view of the plaza.  We stayed at the La Posada de Sante Fe, which is highly recommended.  It is haunted though, apparently…
  • Drove to Monument Valley – we were all blown away by it.  Breathtaking is an overused word but it is fair in this case.  We stayed at Goulding’s Lodge, which nestles under the cliffs and has an old world charm. It is one of only two hotels in the valley.  We enjoyed the local Navajo bread as part of dinner, but missed a beer as the reservation is dry.
  • Took a tour of the Loop Road, Monument Valley and saw the breathtaking John Ford’s Point – complete with a Navajo man on a horse on the point.  He had been hired by a Japanese photography group.  The shot is on the home page a couple of images in.
  • Drove to Antelope Canyon, a slot canyon near Page and took a photographic tour with Adventurous Tours.  The canyon is absolutely stunning, though difficult to photograph because of the intense light and shade.  Our guide was very knowledgable and this helped a great deal.  Interestingly he had been into the canyon with Peter Lik, who shot the world’s most expensive photograph, The Phantom, there.
  • Drove to Flagstaff Arizona, which is great base to explore the Arizona section of Route 66 from.  We stayed at the Little America Hotel and played Pool and Shuffleboard at Uptown Billiards before dinner at a good noodle bar, Sosoba.
  • The following morning we walked the Ponderosa Pine trail at the back of the hotel and saw – in addition to quite a lot of pine trees, various kinds of ‘critters’, none of which we could identify.
  • Headed to Williams, Arizona – my favourite town on Route 66.  Stopped at the ridiculously named ‘Bearzonia’ on the way.  The bears and wolves most impressive – especially an evil looking wolf we nicknamed ‘Evil Dick’.  We met some great characters in the two Western outfitters in Williams and had a burger at the Cruiser Cafe.
  • Spectacular drive along Route 66 through the Black Mountains (listed on dangerous roads) to the Ghost Town of Oatman, where 100 or so people hang on in a place barely changed since the 1920s and wild burros wander the streets.  We had a beer at Judy’s Saloon and wandered through the town – it is quite something to behold.
  • Drove to Las Vegas, Nevada.  It’s not my favourite place, but it was on the way and we had a good dinner at Sushi Samba.
  • Visited the impressive Titanic Artefact Museum in the rather oppressive Luxor.
  • Headed out to Death Valley equipped with very little in the way of a plan or provisions – which is not advisable.  Stopped at Furnace Creek and Zabriskie Point.  We were all surprised by how beautiful the scenery was.
  • Arrived late at night in LA having skipped both lunch and dinner in the name of mileage.
  • A final breakfast of Eggs Benedict and saw a little more of old Route 66 on the way to LAX airport.

Hours in the car – around 40, photographic keepers about 30, fun – almost unlimited.

The Cuban Jungle in a ’55 Chevy

Chevy Bel Air Column ChangeAbout a year ago I was in Old Havana, Cuba. I had been shooting with professional photographer Ramses Batista for several days in when it occurred to me we should take a trip out of the city into the jungle in one of the old American 50s cars that still do service as taxis in that city.  Over a beer we discussed this and Ramses, who is something of a fixer, knew a driver with an immaculate ’55 Chevy Bel Air.  He suggested we took this out to Soroa, where there is a picturesque waterfall.  En route we would stop at a former coffee plantation and later take in an abandoned villa out in the jungle.  The next day our driver, Joe, pulled up outside my hotel with his gleaming wheels. It was immaculate and had been modified to hot-rod specification complete with a chrome skull on the end of the column change.

I declared it perfect. We set out and drove to abandoned coffee plantation.  We parked the gleaming Chevy and set off on foot.  Vulcher like birds circled above us as we took in the views of the valleys below us.  As we walked I could hear the sound of distant drums and enquired where they might be coming from.  Ramses pointed out some buildings far below us ‘It’s a kind of community’ he said.  Voodoo, I thought, unreasonably.  To be fair, my overactive imagination had been fueled by a couple on incidents during the trip.

The first had been a few day’s previously on a quest to shoot angels at Havana’s fine old cemetery (Cemetario de Colon).  On the way out the boot of the car was searched by the man at the gate.  ‘What is he looking for?’ I asked Ramses.  ‘Human bones’ he replied. ‘There are old religions in Cuba, and some need special ingredients like animal blood and human bones.  He’s just checking we didn’t take bones with us.’  A little bit of web research introduced me to read about Palo Monte, one of the darker of Cuba’s syncretic religions which uses these ingredients to enlist the help of deceased ancestors.  The second was when I saw a tethered goat in the street in Old Havana.  When I commented on it Ramses told me it was most likely a sacrificial animal.  Given these two recent experiences I suppose it wasn’t entirely surprising the distant sound of drums in the jungle prompted me to think of voodoo.

As we walked Ramses pointed out some jungle fruit and explained how to eat it without ingesting any germs from the outer shell.  I was skeptical but it proved to be delicious.  Returning to the car we drove on towards Soroa and parked up near a jungle restaurant.  The scene, was pretty bleak; a man sat in the remains of a house near an abandoned ’50s car.  Walking away from us were two men wearing filthy vests and carrying machetes.  ‘Don’t point your camera at anyone unless I tell you it’s OK’ said Ramses.  I nodded, feeling that this was an entirely reasonable request.  Lunch was better than I expected, and after we had eaten we walked down a flight of twisting stone steps to see the waterfall. I had to bring tripod with me, so I couldn’t blur the water the way I like to, but it was still very picturesque. We journeyed on to the abandoned villa, which looked to be of relatively recent construction, though it was quickly falling into disrepair. The entrance proved to be a good spot to shoot the Chevy, though the cloud cover was becoming an unfavourably uniform white by that time of the afternoon.

Our last stop was a bar, a place so remote I was surprised it would ever attract custom.  There was a little podium near the bar with the holy trinity of Cuban cocktails on it: the Mojito; the Daiquiri and the Cuba Libre.  Given the heat and humidity we opted for cold beers, which were very welcome.  We returned late in afternoon and followed our normal ritual of a review of my shots over another beer with a commentary from Ramses, which I always found helpful.

Cuba is an incredibly vibrant country, but when I visited I did feel an almost post-apocalyptic vibe about the place.  Scarity has created a culture of ingenious and almost endless recycling, particularly with vehicles, that, with the benefit of replacement engines and transmission, go on almost indefinately.  Things are changing now in Cuba, and hopefully for the better, but I am keen to get back before it loses that extraordinary look that is the result of all that ingenious recycling.

Darkness at Noon in New York

Darkness at Noon in New YorkThe Chrysler Building is a favourite of mine, and a great subject for black and white photography.    The metallic exterior, the sunburst on the crown and the metal eagles make it an architectural wonder for me.

The Chrysler is a reflection of both the Art Deco era and the machine age and has strong automotive accents.   at 319 m, it was was briefly the world’s tallest building before that honour passed to the Empire State Building in 1931.  It was the headquarters of the Chrysler Corporation from 1930 until the mid-1950s and is still the tallest brick building in the world, albeit with a steel frame, and the 5th tallest building in New York.  The corners of the 61st floor are decorated with those fabulous metal eagles whilst replicas of the 1920s Chrysler bonnet ornaments (aka radiator caps) adorn the corners of the 31st floor.

I took the shot you can see here on a Nikon D300 with an 18-200mm lens at 112mm.  It was shot from 42nd Street in New York City at ground level and the picture was taken in broad daylight, in the early afternoon.   This statement sometimes results in disbelief, but at night what is most visible of the crown of the building is the triangular illuminated windows, so the building appears quite unlike my picture.    A quick search on Google Images for ‘Chrysler Building at night’ will confirm the difference.  The effect you can see here, which I refer to as ‘Darkness at Noon’ relies on  a good quality circular polariser, the nature of the camera’s light meter, and an underexposure/red filter combination during mono coversion.  Let me break this down step by step.

A circular polariser is an indispensible piece of kit that increases color saturation and decrease reflections.  It is also one of the only lens filters the effect of which cannot be replicated by editing.  Importantly, it can also darken skies, which is what I was using one for in this instance.  I used a Hoya Pro-1, which does the job very well.

The second part of the equation is not a technique but a property of the camera, whose reflective light meter wants to average out every scene to middle grey.  What this means in practice is that the brighter the subject (building) is, the darker the background (sky) will be.  This is why the sky looks dark blue in many Mediterranean holiday photos – the white buildings darken the sky.  I took a lot of shots of the Chrysler (around 50) and one in particular had a brighter building and a darker sky, as it had caught the sunlight particularly well at that moment.  So, I took the best shot I had, in which the sky was already dark blue – helped along by the circular polariser – and did my raw editing in Aperture, adjusting the curves into a gentle ‘S’ shape to make the image more punchy.

From there I moved on to Photoshop, to perform the mono conversion.  I use the Silver Efex Pro plugin, which is an amazing bit of software – it has a powerful set of options but also a rich variety of presets, which makes it easy to use.  I selected the ‘underexpose’ preset and added the red filter, which together will turn a dark sky pitch black, and the image was complete: a silver building on a black background.   Or perhaps, a silver building caught in a flash of darkness…

The Streets of Old Havana

Che Mural, CubaOld Havana is everything it is reputed to be and more.  Travelling to the city from the airport on back roads, it felt like I had travelled into an era 50 years on from the apocalypse – with everything in a state of decay and recycling a major part of life.  Old Havana, with its faded and crumbling colonial architecture and many ’50s American cars, is more of the same, and the feeling of being somewhere utterly different is reinforced by the suffocating heat, the noise and the slightly intimidating street life.

I spent five days with Ramses Batista – www.ramseshb.com, a professional Cuban photographer.  We shot mainly on the streets of the city, but also drove around other parts of Havana and out to Cojimar and Soroa in Pinar del Rio.  Ramses was a wonderful tutor and compañero and I was really happy with the shots I brought back with me.   We spent a lot of time setting up street shots – something Ramses excels at.  One of my favourites is shown here – Ramses told me about the Che mural, which was just around the corner from my hotel, the excellent Saratoga, and we flagged down a suitable vehicle for the shot – which shows the driver walking back to his car.   I’ve used a lot of contrast and brought out as much of the structure of the road, building and car as I could.  The mono conversion plugin Silver Effex allows the placement of selective control points, which can be used like spot lights, so I lit the wheels and the pillar slightly as as they were a little too dark without a bit of extra lighting.  As to what the white substance on the road is, I have no idea, but it all adds to the tone and texture.

I’ll describe one anecdote from the trip that highlights how different Cuba is: Ramses and I went out to Colon cemetery to shoot Angels (entities which are well represented on this site at the angels gallery).   As we drove towards the gates on our way out a security guard stopped us and searched the boot.  I asked Ramses why this was necessary  and he told me that the guard was searching for human bones, which are much prized for use in ceremonies in some of the syncretic religions of Cuba…

My Nikon D600 was reliable but suffers from a sensor that is astonishingly sensitive to moisture and dirt, so I spent a lot of time cleaning up spots from the images whilst editing them.  I also took a trip over to my friends at T4 Cameras in Witney for yet another sensor clean.  I was in similarly poor shape as I managed to put my back out travelling in the jungle in some rather dilapidated car seats (I felt we had to take a 50s car for the trip) and I picked up a nasty bug from the same locale – but it was most definitely worth it.  I want to go back and see the rest of the island as soon as I can.

The Walls of Ávila

Avila SpainThis is the oldest picture I have taken on this website. It was taken on 110 film in 1987.   A colleague at work was attending a film class and was asking around for pictures he could use in class.

I had visited Ávila whilst in Madrid as a guest of a friend who had moved out there and this was the best shot I could find.  I was amazed by what he did with it.  He cropped it, converted it to monochrome and added some additional grain.   At the time I just took snapshots, so this was a revelation to me.  I consider this my first decent picture and my first step into black and white photography – a medium I have come to love.  I still like the image; the absence of anything else in frame, the slightly brooding sky, the way the walls stretch off into the distance and of course the subject itself, the mighty, pristine walls are what make the picture work.

Ávila, the ‘City of Saints and Stones, was founded in the 11th century to protect the Spanish territories from the Moors.  It is the capital of the province of the same name in Castile and León in North West Spain, 110 km from Madrid and separated from the capital by the Guadarrama mountain chains. It is 74 km from Segovia.  At 1,126 meters above sea level, it is the highest provincial capital in Spain and sits on the top of a rocky outcrop in the midst of a barren, stone covered plain.

The medieval walls were built between the 11th-14th centuries and are astonishingly well preserved and the most complete fortifications in Spain.   They stretch for 2.5km, stand an average of 12 metres in height, enclose area is 31 hectares (77 acres) and have 9 gates.  The Old Town of Ávila has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, largely due to the walls which are its most impressive monument but also for its 12th Century cathedral and Romanesque churches. I want to go back and shoot Ávila at night, as it is beautifully illuminated – apparently it is the largest fully illuminated monument in the world.