This article started as a list of classic film cameras in movies, taken from my own observations and from internet research and focused largely on the cameras I shoot with – Nikon F SLRs and Leica M Rangefinders. As I sat down to write, I decided to focus on two of the most famous films featuring cameras and photographers, Apocalypse Now and Rear Window, which happen to be two of my favourite films of all time. This took me on a voyage of discovery into the influences for the movies that proved to be nearly as winding as the Mekong River in Apocalypse Now and provided the content for this blog.
In Apocalypse Now Dennis Hopper plays the photojournalist, an unnamed disciple of the deranged Colonel Kurtz (Marlon Brando), who leads a renegade army of American and Montagnard troops from remote abandoned Cambodian temple. The photojournalist is nearly as unhinged as the man he admires – as his conversations with Willard (Martin Sheen) attest.
Willard : Could we, uh… talk to Colonel Kurtz? Photojournalist : Hey, man, you don’t talk to the Colonel. You listen to him. The man’s enlarged my mind. He’s a poet warrior in the classic sense. I mean sometimes he’ll… uh… well, you’ll say “hello” to him, right? And he’ll just walk right by you. He won’t even notice you. And suddenly he’ll grab you, and he’ll throw you in a corner, and he’ll say, “Do you know that ‘if’ is the middle word in life? If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you, if you can trust yourself when all men doubt you”… I mean I’m… no, I can’t… I’m a little man, I’m a little man, he’s… he’s a great man! I should have been a pair of ragged claws scuttling across floors of silent seas…
Despite appearing in only three scenes, Hopper’s is one of the most intriguing characters in the sprawling story. Amongst the improvised hippy jive talk his dialogue is constructed from lines taken from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and poems from Rudyard Kipling and TS Elliot. The photojournalist, whose name is never revealed, also has an important role to play in revealing Kurtz’s plans for Willard.
Hopper’s photojournalist appears as the ne plus ultra of combat photography; bearded and unkempt, wearing full camouflage with a red headband and sunglasses and covered in photography gear, some of it visibly battered. The cameras are Nikon Fs with a variety of lenses; by the look of them a fast 50mm, possibly a 105mm and a 200mm. The role was suggested to Coppola by the stills photographer on the set Chas Gerretsen on the basis that if he wanted to mock TV correspondents in South Vietnam he should create a photojournalist because “we were all crazy.” Chas had served in Vietnam and routinely carried a number Nikon F’s, and so the role was born, replacing Captain Colby, Kurtz’s right hand man, which Hopper had originally been cast as. Chas sold several of his old Nikon F cameras and lenses to the production company and they were used in the film.
Michael Herr, who collaborated on the narrative of Apocalypse Now, undoubtedly had a strong influence on the portrayal of the Photojournalist. Herr is best known as author of the classic book on the Vietnam War Dispatches and several scenes and pieces of dialogue used from that book were later used in Apocalypse Now and also Full Metal Jacket.
In Like (Sean) Flynn
Herr was a correspondent for Esquire magazine during the Vietnam War and new many of the photojournalists who covered the conflict. This included SeanFlynn, a man with one of the most fascinating, but also one of the saddest stories of the war and the only child of hell-raising screen legend Errol. Initially following in his fathers footsteps as an actor (his first film was Son of Captain Blood, sequel to his father’s classic Captain Blood), he abandoned the craft to start a new life in Vietnam as a combat photographer.
He exploits are truly intrepid. He shot his way out of an ambush with the Green Berets with an M16; incurred injuries from a grenade fragment in battle; made a parachute jump with an Airborne Division, and identified a mine whilst photographing troops, saving an Australian unit from potential destruction. Flynn used a Leica M2 in Vietnam, and it came to light, complete with a strap that fashioned from a parachute cord and a hand grenade pin, just a few years ago.
In 1970 Flynn was captured by Viet Cong guerrillas at a checkpoint along with fellow photojournalist Dana Stone. The pair had elected to travel by motorbike rather than the limos the majority of photojournalists were travelling in. Neither he or Stone were never seen again and despite the efforts of his mother to find him Flynn was declared dead in absentia in 1984. Despite the continued efforts of friends and JPAC, the organization responsible for recovering the remains of fallen soldiers, the fate of two remains unknown.
The Cultural References section of Flynn’s entry in Wikipedia references him as the basis for the Photojournalist in Apocalypse Now, though it is not substantiated. It is entirely possible however, as Flynn, along with Stone and Englishman Tim Page, are portrayed as the lunatic journalists and “bad, dope-smoking cats” of Michael Herr’s Dispatches. What is certain is that his story is told on the album Combat Rockby The Clash on the “Sean Flynn” track and a film inspired by his life entitled The Road to Freedom which was filmed on location in Cambodia in 2011.
The Real Kurtz
The role of Colonel Kurtz and his ‘unsound methods’ (which included heads on sticks) was inspired by the character of the same name in Joseph Conrad’s novella ‘Heart of Darkness’, a book that impressed me hugely when I read it in my early twenties. What is less well known and is revealed in the UK documentary ‘The Search for Kurtz’ is another influence; CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer Tony Poe and his leadership of Operation Momentum, launched in 1962 to turn the Laotian Hmmong people into anti-communist guerillas.
The Wrath of Klaus Kinski
A huge influence and template for the Vietnam river epic is Aguirre, Wrath of God by Werner Herzog, starring a barely sane Klaus Kinski in the role of his life. The story follows the self styled ‘Wrath of God, Prince of Freedom, King of Tierra Firme’ Lope de Aguirre, who leads a group of conquistadores down the Amazon River in search of El Dorado, city of Gold.
It is an astonishing and spectacular film, described by Robert Egbert as is “one of the great haunting visions of the cinema”. Curiously, I did not make the connection with Apocalypse Now until researching this article, though now it seems obvious. Like Apocalypse Now, which was troubled by a heart attack, an overweight star, a mental breakdown and storms that destroyed the sets, the filming of Aguirre is the stuff of legend. Herzog allegedly pulled a gun on Kinski to force him to continue to act in the remote fever-ridden jungle district where the film was shot.
Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is another of the most iconic photographer/film camera combinations in movie history. The film is based on a short story, “It Had to Be Murder” and stars Jimmy Stewart as LB ‘Jeff’ Jeffries, a New York magazine photographer. Recuperating from a broken leg, Jeffries is confined to a wheelchair in his apartment in Greenwich Village.
Jeff’s rear window looks out onto a courtyard and his neighbour’s apartments, which he observes during his convalescence in a stifling Manhattan summer. The include a lonely middle-aged woman, a new wed couple, a dancer, a husband and his sick wife, an alcoholic pianist and a couple who often sleep out in the balcony in the hot weather. Jeff’s observations include some suspicious sounds and behaviour and he becomes convinced one of his neighbours, Lars Thorwald, has committed a murder.
Inspirations for a Murderer
Mischievously, Hitchcock modelled the murderer on a former meddling producer he did not care for, David O. Selznick. Grace Kelly plays the archetypical Hitchcock blonde heroine in Lisa Carol Fremont, a stylish and resourceful socialite who has to engage in much of the action as Jeff is wheelchair bound. Although he did not write the the screenplay, Hitchcock also supplied colour for the murder story from two cases he head read about in the newspapers: the infamous Dr. Crippen and the less well remembered Patrick Mohan, both of whom dismembered their victims.
The Role of the Photographer
Rear Window is another of my favourite films, and the role of the photographer is pure Hitchcock. David Campany describes it well in the essay Re-viewing Rear Window:
“For Hitchcock’s purposes, a photographer is above all someone who looks. It is their socially accepted voyeurism that is significant, not their images. Voyeurism requires a safe distance, a vantage point for the observer beyond the reach of the observed (much like a movie audience, watching but not accountable). In Rear Window, the photographer is cut off not just by the lens of his camera, or by the glass window of his apartment, or indeed by the abyss of the courtyard across which he stares. It is his professionalized looking, with its fantasy of objectivity, that cuts him off. It demands his separation from the world. Despite witnessing what he believes is a murderer covering his traces, he feels no urge to get it on film. Rather, he uses his camera’s long lens as a telescope to watch, swapping it for binoculars when things get really intense.”
That Obscure Object of Desire
Jeff’s camera was an Exakta Varex VX 35mm film SLR made by the improbably named Ihagee of Dresden, which was in East Germany at the time. Mounted on it was a huge 400mm telephoto lens; the catchily named Kilfitt fern-kilar f/5.6 model, and collectively they are now known as the ‘Rear Window stalking camera’ and much desired by collectors. Although scarcely known today beyond its association with the Hitchcock classic, Kilfitt was an innovative German lens manufacturer who introduced the first production varifocal (zoom) lens for still 35mm photography – The Zoomar of 1959, which arrived the same year as the Nikon’s game changing F. Kilfitt also produced the first macro lens to provide continuous close focusing in 1955. If you are interested in photography milestones such as these, take a look at the timeline on this site.
My Own 400mm Rear Window Lens
I have a 400mm lens also. Not wanting to spend several thousand on a lens I would use only occasionally I purchased an old school manual focus Nikon Ai-S 400m f3.5 IF-ED from a Japanese eBay seller – just like this reviewer, who has includes a couple of great sample shots. Its an all-metal 2.8kg beast of a lens, built like the proverbial tank with a 122mm filter ring and surgically sharp. Mine came with a protective clear 122mm filter, which made it even better value. It is an amazing piece of kit but not the most practical. There’s no VR and even on a tripod it is so front heavy that on a ball head every adjustment is a bit of an adventure!
The first version of the lens was introduced in 1976 and was followed in 1977 by an Ai version. Mine is the Ai-S lens version introduced in 1982 and which can be identified by the minimum aperture number which is engraved in orange. The expression ‘they don’t make them like that anymore’ was never more true than with this lens which is an incredibly solidly engineered piece of work.
So far, I’ve mainly used it for moon shorts with the Z7 and the FTZ adapter using focus peaking. I’ve recently added a TC-301 to turn it into an 800mm f7 lens and a gimbal head to make it easier to shoot, but the moon has proved unusually elusive since then. If I was ever, like Jeff, confined to home for a long period and wanted to spy on my neighbours I think I would have to get a new lens. The beast is just too heavy for anything except tripod work.
It’s a Wrap
As usual writing this article turned out to be more informative than I expected. If I have missed any cameras or influences for Apocalypse Now or Rear Window you think I should include please leave me a comment.
The legendary German marque has had more than its fair share of movie appearances, particularly the M3. Leica pioneered the 35mm ‘miniature format’, back in 1930 with the first practical camera to use standard cinema film, which required high quality lenses and negative enlargement to make the format work.
Subsequent development, based on many years of learning, resulted in the M3 of 1954, which a huge step forward on its predecessors, combining the viewfinder and rangefinder in one bright window, a bayonet lens mount, and rapid film advance lever. Despite its high price it was very successful with over 220,000 units sold by 1966 when production ended. By that time the Nikon F, nemesis of the teutonic rangefinder, had been in the market 7 years and the world of 35mm photography had changed forever, with the SLR having won the hearts and minds of many professional photographers.
The M6 TTL
Enthusiasts continue to argue over which is the best Leica and the M3 maintains a strong fan base, mainly for its large, bright high magnification viewfinder, which many argue has never been bettered. I’ve shot with the M3, M6TTL and M7 and my personal favourite is the M6TTL (0.58 version pictured below, along with 0.85 M7) The built in light meter is eschewed by the Leica hardcore, but I find it preferable and it has superior ergonomics with a modern film crank and large dial for the shutter speed. Leica consider a film rewind crank, which has been standard on virtually all film cameras since the ’60s to be a bit racy and like the original M3, neither film camera in production today (the Leica M-A and Leica M-P) sports one.
I came to Leica from the autofocus Q, which I travelled the world with as part of my job at the time. I am not a digital Leica M shooter, but I do love shooting with film Ms, the lenses are outstanding and full of character and the build quality is second to none. They are also very beautiful cameras and look great in the many movies they have appeared in.
The Leica M in Movies
Persona (1966, M3)
Downhill Racer (M3, 1969)
Darling (M3, 1965)
Green Berets (M3, 1968)
Le Mans ( M3, 1971)
Patton (M3, 1970)
The Day of The Jackal (M3, 1973)
The Odessa File (M3, 1974)
Woodstock (M4, 1974)
Dog Day Afternoon (M3, 1975)
The Omen (M3, 1976)
Under Fire (M4-2, 1983)
Salvador Leica (M3, 1986)
Wings of Desire (M4, 1987)
Mighty Joe Young (1988, M6)
Addicted to Love (M6, 1997)
George of the Jungle (M6, 1997)
Payback (M3, 1999)
Spy Game (M6 with motor drive, 2001)
Imposter (M6, 2002)
We Were Soldiers (M3, 2002)
Blood Diamond (M6, 2003)
Eurotrip (M7, 2004)
The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (M7, 2005)
The Omen (M7, 2006)
Other Classic Film Cameras in Movies
A huge number of film camera manufacturers have come and gone and their products have appeared in hundreds, if not thousands of movies, but here are a few of the more notable ones. Of the models listed below, I have only shot with the Olympus OM-1, another game changing camera which began a shift towards more compact, lighter 35 mm SLRs, away from the increasing weight of the Nikon pro SLRs and back towards the smaller form factor that Leica had always delivered with rangefinders.
Though I don’t have any of the Rolleiflex models listed below (2.8F and T), I have a Rolleiflex 3.5F from 1961 which I absolutely love, and is considered by many to be one of the finest film cameras ever made. The Rolleiflex uses 120 medium format film which produces huge and very detailed 6x6cm negatives. Shooting a Twin Lens Reflex (TLR) camera is an entirely different experience to shooting either an SLR or rangefinder, and though manual focus can be challenging, gazing at the world through that illuminated ground glass screen that sees the world back to front is absolutely entrancing.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Rollei B35, 1977)
National Lampoon’s Vacation (Olympus OM-1, 1983)
Easy Money (Exacta VX, 1983)
The Killing Fields (Rolleiflex 2.8F, Pentax Spotmatic, 1984)
Bridges of Madison County (Nikon SP Rangefinder, 1995)
Ronin (Leica R6.2, 1998)
Catch me if you Can (Kodak Retina 2C, 2002)
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Pentax 67 medium format, 2009)
Jurassic World (Lomography Diana F+, 2015)
Batman v Superman (Nikon S3 Y2K Rangefinder, 2016)
Kong: Skull Island (Canon AE-1 Program, 2017)
The Last Word
The last word in this article goes to the humble Yashica Electro 35 GSN rangefinder pictured above, a typical manual focus rangefinder camera with a fixed lens and aperture priority auto exposure mode. You simply set the aperture and if it is not correct for the lighting conditions the ‘over’ or ‘slow’ directional arrows light up.
Long after it was discontinued, the inexpensive Electro has developed a cinematic identity thanks to an appearance as Peter Parker’s camera in The Amazing Spiderman (2012). There are several Electros (G, GS, GSN, GTN, GL, MG-1 and CC) and thanks to its moment in the spotlight the GSN has become known as the Spiderman version.
In addition to being inexpensive and fun to use, the camera has highly evocative 1960s branding; the space-age atomic symbol on the front of camera and the Color-Yashica branding on the sharp 45mm f/1.7 lens are both very 1960s indeed. Colour was new to consumers when the camera was first released in 1966! I have one myself, and whilst its no Leica, for value for money and fun to shoot with its hard to beat.
That’s it for my classic cameras in movies round up. If I have missed any cameras you think I should include please leave me a comment. For more about historically important cameras, please visit the year by year timeline.
There are many strands in a photography timeline – the chemistry of film and processing, the physics of optics, the mechanical engineering of shutters, the electronics of metering and digital photography, and the iconic camera designs that bring everything together. At each end of the photography timeline, the science is bewilderingly complex – from the arcane chemical processes of early photography to the algorithms of computational photography, which enables cameras to go beyond capturing photons to compute pictures.
It’s not a linear journey; digital photography has been accompanied by a resurgence of interest in all things analogue, characterised by toy cameras, digital filters and apps that produce or replicate the look of film as well as the renewed growth of film photography. I started to shoot with film again in 2016 and around the time I first wrote this article, during the lockdowns of 2020, I started to expand my small collection of vintage film cameras and went back to film photography. There is an all-film gallery of the boats of Deal, Kent shot with a variety of film cameras including SLRs, TLRs and rangefinders here. It’s gratifying to see the growth of UK film businesses such as Analogue Wonderland, which supplies a vast range of film stock and The Intrepid Camera Company, which has reinvented large format photography for the twenty-first century. I’m as interested in looking forward as back however, and and follow new developments with great interest, including crowd funded ventures such as the AI powered Alice Camera.
I’ve reviewed, and borrowed from, many timelines and dozens of articles and books on the history of film, film processes, cameras, lenses, digital technology, phone camera development and computational photography to compile this photography timeline and in an attempt to combine these strands. The sections of the timeline are of my own devising.
I’ve tried to be diligent with my research and check the facts. The sources for the majority of entries are included as URLs. I have also referred to several excellent books: A History of Photography in 50 Cameras by Michael Pritchard; the Taschen books 20th Century Photography and A History of Photography; Photography A Concise History by Ian Jeffrey and Photography, the Definitive Visual History by Tom Ang, all of which I can recommend. If you spot any factual errors please feel free to share them with me along with the source(s).
Charles Chevalier creates a compound achromatic lens to cut down on chromatic aberration, a failure of a lens to focus all colours to the same plane, for Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s photographic experiments
1832Robert Hunt’sResearches on Light records the first known description employing platinum to make a photographic print, but does not succeed in producing a permanent image
1835William Henry Fox Talbot makes his first successful camera photograph or “photogenic drawing” using paper sensitised with silver chloride,
1839 The public birthday of photography, from three inventors – Dagurerre, Fox Talbot and Bayard
Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s Daguerreotype becomes the first photographic process to be adopted, creating a unique image on a silvered metal plate of remarkable sharpness.
Hearing of Daguerre’s invention, Fox Talbot announces a paper process to achieve images by action of light and presents his photogenic drawings at the Royal Society in London
Hippolyte Bayard produces direct-positive images (like Daguerre’s process) on sensitized paper (like Talbot’s).
Sir John Herschel suggests fixing images in sodium thiosulphate. He also coins the terms photography, negative and positive.
1854James Ambrose Cutting takes out several patents relating to the Ambrotype process, underexposed or bleached wet collodion negatives that appeared positive when placed against a dark coating or backing
Parisian portrait photographer André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri patents the Carte-de-visite (CdV), a new style of portrait utilizing albumen paper the size of a visiting card that will become commonly traded among friends and visitors
1855 The carbon process is patented by A. L. Poitevin, producing an image resistant to fading which becomes widely used in book illustration
1857 The folding camera with tapering bellows is invented by C.G.H. Kinnear, forming the basis for subsequent bellows designs
1858 John Waterhouse invents Waterhouse stops, a system using plates with different aperture diameters that could be inserted into a slot in the lens barrel which are the earliest selectable stops.
John Harrison Powell registers his design for a portable stereoscopic camera.
1871-1900 Instantaneous Photography without the Chemistry
1871 English physician Richard Leach Maddox invents the lightweight gelatin dry plate silver bromide process, assigning the complex and arduous chemistry work photographers had previously to undertake to a factory
1873Charles Harper Bennett improves the gelatin silver process by hardening the emulsion, making it more resistant to friction
The platinotype process, which produces platinum prints, is patented by William Willis.
1877 George Eastman learns to make his own gelatin dry plates, based on the writings of the British innovators, including Charles Harper Bennett
Adolf Miethe and Johannes Gaedicke produce Blitzlicht – the first ever widely used flash powder
1878 Heat ripening of gelatin emulsions is discovered by Charles Harper Bennett, making possible very short exposures and paving the way for the snapshot
1879 George Eastman applies for a patent for an emulsion-coating machine, which enables him to mass-produce photographic dry plates
1881 Thomas Bolas patents a hand-held, box form camera he calls a detective camera
1882Etienne Jules Marey perfects a chronophotographic gun, a device capable of taking 12 exposures a second.
1883 Ottomar Anschütz designs a camera with an internal roller blind shutter mechanism in front of the photographic plate – the first focal-plane shutter in recognisable form
William Schmid patents the first detective camera to be widely sold
1885 The first flexible photographic roll film was sold by George Eastman, though this original “film” was actually a coating on a paper base
1886 Frederick E. Ives develops the halftone engraving process, making it possible to reproduce photographic images in the same operation as printing text
The first single use camera, the Ready Fotografer, is introduced, using a dry plate, though it appears to have enjoyed very limited success
1887The Rev. Hannibal Goodwin files a patent application for camera film on celluloid rolls, though it will be not granted until 1898, by which time George Eastman has started production of roll-film using his own process
1888 The Kodak n°1 box camera, the first ready-loaded, easy-to-use camera is introduced with the slogan “You press the button, we do the rest.”
1889 George Eastman introduces the first transparent plastic roll film, made from highly flammable cellulose nitrate film
The Loman Reflex, the first commercially produced camera with a focal-plane shutter, is introduced
1890 The Zeiss Protar, the first successful anastigmat photographic lens, designed Dr Paul Rudolph, is introduced
The Graflex Speed Graphic press camera is introduced and will continue in production until 1973
1913 Kodak invents 35mm film for the early motion picture industry
Oskar Barnack, creates the Ur-Leica, the prototype of a small-format 35mm camera, doubling the width of 18x24mm cinema film and running it horizontally, rather than vertically as in cinema cameras of the time
Nikon releases the NIKKOR Z 50mm f/1.2 S for the Nikon Z mount system
Canon launches the EOS R series next-generation full-frame mirrorless cameras featuring Dual Pixel CMOS AF technology that provides autofocus in low-light conditions previously too dark to focus in.
The Apple 12 ships, with a new 7-element design with an ƒ/1.6 aperture for the primary camera as well as advancements to Smart HDR and Deep Fusion.
Fujifilm launches the compact prime lens X100V. The fifth X100-series camera, it is described in Digital Photography Review as the most capable prime-lens compact camera, ever
The Nikon F6 film SLR is discontinued
Mirrorless cameras overtake DSLRs based on unit volume (CIPA data)
2021 Sony introduces the ⍺1, a 50.1MP, 8.6K camera capable of shooting bursts at up to 30fps blackout-free, with 15 stops of dynamic range, real-time animal eye AF and anti-distortion shutter technology.
Olympus exits the camera market, completing the sale of its camera business to JIP, a Tokyo-based venture capital firm.
The next day we left Muscat and headed for Jebel Akhdar – the Green Mountain. This forms the central section of the Al Hajar (Rocky or Stone) Mountain range, which run for about 700 km thorough Oman and the UAE. They are also known simply as ‘The Oman Mountains’. As their name suggests the range is mostly bare rock and desert. The ‘green’ of the Green Mountain starts at higher altitudes where there is enough rain to support shrubs, trees and agriculture. Damask roses, pomegranates, walnuts and apricots are all grown there.
The peaks of Jebel Akhdar surround a high plateau and have historically created a division between the relatively inaccessible interior and rule from the coast at Muscat. The mountain road is very good though access is relatively recent. As there is a military base on the mountain it was only in 2005 that the mountain was opened up to visitors. There is still a checkpoint at the bottom off the ascent but that is just to ensure that visitors are in possession of a four wheel drive vehicle and a valid driving license.
Birkat al Mouz and Old Birkat
As we neared the mountains we drove up a steep slope to an elevated vantage point. Form there we had a view of the deserted mud brick village of Old Birkat at the base of the mountain. It was a spectacular sight and one I will never forget. I took the shot with the Nikon Z7 and the 24-70mm f4 S kit lens, which I used for all the landscape shots on this trip. I use the smaller and more discrete Leica Q for street photography.
Descending the slope we drove to the nearby town of Birkat al Mouz, which translates to pool of bananas. We drove though a large date plantation and my guide went to pray at a small mosque, leaving me to admire some deserted mud brick houses and the ancient Aflaj irrigation system. In 2006, the Al Sharieh Falaj system, built between 1674-1741, was designated as one of five UNESCO Heritage Sites. Falaj is the singular of Aflaj and this ancient system of water channels dates back some 5,000 years.
The Saiq Plateau and Wadi al Ayn
Continuing our ascent we drove up a series of very steep hairpin bends to the Saiq Plateau – a distance of a little over 30 km. We stopped and walked to the rim of the cliff at Wadi al Ayn, which provided another spectacular, and more panoramic, view. Diana, Princess of Wales, apparently enjoyed the view here on a royal visit to Oman 1986 and there is a viewing point named after her at the nearby Hotel Anatara. It is an incredible vista that takes in a huge gorge with terraced steps cut into the side complete with several villages precariously hanging off the cliffs. For the second time that day I was completely entranced. As we left my guide poured water over a couple of areas of rock to show me some fossils, including an ancient turtle. Finding a marine fossil at such a high altitude was surprising but the rocks of the Hajar Mountains formed under the sea. The Oman mountains, as it turns out, are a geologist’s paradise.
Returning to our Land Cruiser we completed the last of the 50km journey up the Jebel Akhdar to my hotel – The Alila. Here we greeted with typical Omani hospitality of coffee and dates. The Alila is in a spectacular location overlooking another huge gorge. It is built of dark grey local stone and is one of the best examples of modern design I have seen anywhere. It also has an infinity pool that is, for once, not misnamed and a great kitchen. I tried the famous local dish of Suwa and was not disappointed. They also served some delicious Biryani dishes such as Biryani Al Khadruat, B. Samak and B. Dilaj.
My guide had told me that it was market day in the town of Sinaw the following day where the Bedu would be selling their camels and goats. We promptly arranged a day out on that basis.
The Souk at Sinaw
We met at 6.00 AM in the hotel reception and headed down the mountain. Sinaw is in the Al Sharqiya region, not far from the sands of the same name, and about 90 km from the Green Mountain. The town has a large Souk based around an outdoor courtyard and Thursday is market day.
We arrived at about 7.30 having stopped briefly for Qahwa (Omani coffee) and the market was in full swing. There was a continual procession of white Toyota Hiluxes arriving laden with goods and livestock. Tied to posts along one side of the courtyard of the souk were a long line camels, whilst under cover goats were being auctioned, and on the other side there was a substantial fish market. Around the edges vegetables, fresh and dry fruit, dates, dry shark meat, animal feed and much else was for sale. It really felt like a desert town, and only saw one other Westerner whilst I was there.
It was now lunch time and my guide was keen for me to sample camel so we stopped at a place he knew towards the sand. We were served both curried camel and braised camel – I preferred the former which reminder me a little of goat curry.
The Sharqiya Sands
After lunch we headed for the Sharqiya Sands (also known as the Wahiba Sands), stopping at a tyre centre in a nearby town to deflate the tyres to desert running pressures. The sands cover an area 180km North to South and 80km East to West with large longitudinal dunes, that can reach as high as 100m tall. There are no permanent human settlements there, although there are plenty of animal pens at the edge of the desert.
We travelled a few kilometres out into the desert and got stuck in the dunes. My guide was not troubled by this, and after letting a little more air out of the types we escaped and carried on, stopping at a Bedu tent for coffee and dates and a look at various items for sale. Someone had just caught a scorpion and put it in a bottle, which gave me pause for thought. A bit of quick internet research showed that there is an anti-venom available for scorpion stings in Oman, and though the venom typically causes ‘significant local pain and some swelling’, it doesn’t cause the ‘local and systematic toxicity, local tissue destruction and deranged blood clotting’ of local snake bites. I had no idea blood clotting could be deranged and it increased my inclination to avoid Omani snakes.
We hobbled back to the tyre shop using every bit of sand and rough ground we could as the tyres were practically deflated. After a top up my guide enquired if I wanted to head back out to the deep desert, but as we were travelling with a a single vehicle I declined, so I didn’t see the really huge dunes, and need to go back some time.
Wadi Bani Khalid
I had never seen a wadi close up so our next destination was Wadi Bani Khalid, probably the best-known wadi in country, which is also an oasis. The term wadi is a little confusing as it means both valley and riverbed fed by the rains – more of which later. Wadi Bani Khalid is famed for its large green pools which are fed by a constant flow of water though an eroded canyon strewn with boulders.
Perhaps because it is such a short walk from the car park to the pools, the wadi has been developed for tourism and has bridge and seating areas, where you can sit and watch the teeming fish. It is very popular with picnickers, but it was very quiet when we were there. There is a cave network near the pools but we decided not to go in. The sky above had become heavy with rain clouds and dangerous flash floods can develop quickly.
After that it was time to head home. It’s around 250 km drive from Wadi Bani Khalid to the Alila on Jabal Akhdar so we got back about 7 PM.
Nizwa – the Old Mountain Capital
The next day I was up even earlier, and met my guide at 5 AM in the hotel reception. Nizwa is a short drive away, but the action at the famed livestock market there is best seen early.
Nizwa is an ancient place located in the heart of the country at the base of the Oman mountains. It was the nation’s capital in the 6th and 7th century, and was an early to convert to Islam. Traditionally conservative, it was another destination that thwarted explorer Wilfred Thesiger during his time in Oman. His account of his time in the Arabian Peninuslar Arabian Sands is well worth reading and provides a glimpse into a vanished nomadic lifestyle.
As soon as we arrived, we headed straight for the market. It was heaving with activity and the auctioneers where busy leading sometimes reluctant goats round in a large circle for buyers to inspect. I stood on the outside and then made my way into the centre where I could shoot down on the action, capturing the image shown here.
Nizwa is known for its imposing fort built in 1668. It is one of Oman’s most-visited national monuments and was our next visit. It also has a good souk where you can find handcrafted silver Khanjars along with many other forms of silver craftsmanship. It is also known for pottery, goat wool textiles and high quality dates. Around the back of the market were some tables where Khanjars and old Lee Enfield rifles were for sale. That might sound edgy, but it really wasn’t at all – Nizwa is a major tourist destination and I felt perfectly safe all the time I was there.
We had a most delicious lunch of grilled lamb and a flatbread wrap of salad from a packed little kebab shop and then headed back up the mountain to the Alila, where I spent my final day in the Oman mountains admiring the astonishing view from in and around the hotel pool. It had been a fantastic trip and I would love to go back, the people, the culture and landscape make it one of the most interesting countries I have ever visited.
The Unexpected Wadi
My visit to the Oman mountains were a great adventure – even my return to the UK was a little more exciting than I had expected as it started to rain hard just as I was about to leave for the airport. The hotel told me to expect to spend another night as the mountain road is closed at the checkpoint when it rains, but it was only raining at the top of the mountain and my driver lived close so he arrived as scheduled.
It was an interesting journey down the mountain as the rain had dislodged a lot of shingle and small boulders and we can encountered quite a bit of flooding. Shortly into our descent, the driver told me we might have to wait for a little while ‘at the wadi’. We soon came across a raging torrent in our path. I eyed the fast moving water pensively. “That doesn’t look very much like the last wadi I saw” I said. My driver waved his hand in a dismissive gesture and told me that he lived on the mountain, that this was nothing out of the ordinary and we would cross without difficulty. I believed him on the first two points… Happily he was right on all points and we were soon through the flood water. The rain stopped as we got to a lower altitude and before long I was bidding farewell, but I hope not goodbye, to Oman at Muscat airport.
Nearly three years after I first posted about my new Leica Q on this site, it was stolen from a South Kensington Pub. This was after a visit to the Natural History Museum to see the 2019 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Exhibition. I am fairly sure it was a professional thief, rather than an opportunist, who stole it as the camera was right next to me in its bag and our table was never unattended – yet we saw nothing. As the pub had no CCTV the police soon closed the case. The camera was insured, so I replaced it immediately, deciding not to wait for the new Q2 model rumoured to be coming out later in 2019. Instead, I bought a second Q in black from the excellent Red Dot Cameras. I considered the red-dotless Q-P ‘stealth’ model as a replacement, but the premium was quite considerable, so instead I carefully taped over the logo with black electrician’s tape.
Always on the Move…
2016-2018 were big travel years for me as my work took me to the US, Europe, the Middle East, Africa and, for a short while, the Far East. I also went on a couple of road trips – one from Canada to Mexico, and another across Japan. I was rarely at home during those years and I took my Leica Q everywhere I went. I took around 25,000 shots along the way and came to love my camera; it took everything the world could throw at it, whilst remaining perfectly usable, was a joy to handle and allowed me to create some of my best images. In this post I’ll share what I learned along the way.
Firstly, the Leica Q is extremely tough and resilient . When I changed straps from the elegant, but thin, leather strap that came with the Q to my preferred, and wider, M strap I didn’t attach it correctly. It later came unfastened – just as I was about to shoot the Sydney Opera House. It hit the ground hard but fortunately had only a small ding on the top plate to show for it. Many other cameras would have been rendered unusable by the impact, if not damaged beyond repair.
The reason the Q survived the impact so well is because the top plate is machined from a solid block of aluminium that sits atop a tank -like body of magnesium alloy. For travellers there is just no substitute for a resilient camera – knocks are inevitable over time.
It’s worth mentioning that there is a knack to putting the strap on correctly to avoid testing the Q’s build quality the way I did. The easiest way is to take the metal fastener off the strap, put it on the camera first and then attach the strap. It’s actually pretty hard to get it wrong if you do it that way.
For a camera that lacks weather proofing it does very well in harsh conditions. Eventually the sensor needed cleaning, but that was after two years of shooting in some hostile climates including a couple of visits to one of the most inhospitable – the Rub al Khali desert, otherwise known as the Empty Quarter.
The Summilux f1.7 stabilised lens is unparalleled for sharpness. It’s the best lens I have ever owned, works incredibly well with the full frame sensor and of course delivers the recognisable but difficult to define Leica look. It is an aspherical (ASPH) lens, a design that tends to be more compact, sharper in the corners wide open and offers a bit more contrast.
I also found Leica’s choice of 28mm for a fixed lens to be a good one. 28mm is wide enough for landscape and urban work and you can easily crop in a little for street photography.
Shooting with the Leica Q is enjoyable and intuitive. The Q combines minimalist manual controls with modern electronic assistance to create a first class user experience.
After service is incredible. When I had the sensor cleaned (which was free of charge) Leica service replaced the chequered outer covering of the camera as part of the service!
It is worth considering both the hand grip and the Match Technical Thumbs Up for improved ergonomics. I prefer the Thumbs Up both in terms of handling and because the hand grip needs to be removed to change the battery or a memory card. It comes off quickly, but it will still slow you down a little. I use the Thumbs Up EP-SQ2 which is machined from solid brass and locks onto the hot-shoe with a hex key. It is pricey, but worth it as it is beautifully made. Once the Thumbs Up is on the camera it really does feel like it was always there and part of the original product.
When I got my replacement Q I was reminded of just how excellent the packaging is. The ‘chest of drawers’ that contains the camera, its accessories (all in their own little Leica bags) and documentation is really well designed. Just search YouTube for Leica Q unboxing to see how many people have been enthralled by the experience.
Despite its relatively small size it is a camera that attracts attention – good and bad. I keep the famous red dot logo covered, but Leica cognoscenti still comment favourably on my choice of camera from time to time. This is particularly the case in Deal, Kent where my parents live, and where I often visit. It seems there is a high concentration of Leica users there…
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.
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.
Carmel 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.
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.
The 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 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.
Across 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.
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.
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 Phillipsin 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.
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.
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.
Room 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.
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.
Today’s Las Vegas is very different to how it was in its formative years, when it grew to provide gambling and other adult entertainment to dam construction workers partially funded by Mafia investment. The influence of organised crime in the city lasted well into the 1980’s so it’s still relatively easy to meet people who remember the days when the mob ran the city.
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 mob-run casinos and lamented the decline in standards and increases in petty crime in the city since the mob had lost control. Back in the day, he maintained, the city was cleaner, safer and generally a better place to live.
After asking a few questions, this apparently utopian picture unravelled into a much darker reality. He admitted that now and again those living on the edge of the city might find find a human body part “sometimes a femur, sometimes a skull” brought home from a desert burial by their pet dog. I was horrified by this and commented that, to me, that was too a high price to pay for a tidier looking city! Unsurprisingly he was unmoved and adamant that those deaths were not a real issue. His argument was that ‘everyone’ knew that if you were stupid enough to steal from the mafia you would be killed, and only those that did so ended up in shallow graves in the desert. I remained unconvinced, but it was really interesting to meet someone who had seen Las Vegas in its mob days, and to be misty-eyed about a past many consider awful.
Before we parted, 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 and also has an excellent blog.
A .38 revolver, a wad of hundreds and a small bag of white powder
Curiously enough on the same trip I also met a barman, who I’ll call Michael, with even more direct experience of the same era. He told me a couple of stories about legendary mobster Anthony Spilotro, who was portrayed in the Martin Scorsese movie Casino as Nicky Santoro and played with terrifying menace by Joe Pesci.
Michael was sitting next to Tony Spilotro on the other side of the bar where he was working as he was off-duty. There had been talk in the city about a serious falling out between Spilotro and his fellow mobsters, and to avoid getting caught up in potentially lethal action, Michael slid down a couple of bar 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 dead and buried in a cornfield. In the movie he was buried still breathing, but that is unlikely; later mob testimony revealed he was beaten to death in a basement and moved to the burial site afterwards.
On another occasion Michael was asked to retrieve and return Tony Spilotro’s wife’s purse (or handbag in British English) from the bar he was working in, which is 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 overtly 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 to ‘hit him’.
Downtown Las Vegas
On that trip I spent most of my spare time in Old (Downtown) Las Vegas, which for me is by far the most interesting part of the city; it is full of characters and rather gritty in comparison to the glitzy experience of The Strip, which personally I don’t care for much.
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.
“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.
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.
Between 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.
Beyond Caravaggioat 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”