The Old Sand Works

I still like hanging around dumps

I spent the morning of the Spring Bank Holiday walking around a piece of wasteland in Marshside, Southport. It’s known as the Old Sand Works, and there really isn’t much there apart from what you see in the pictures. Having said that, I still found enough to keep my photographic eye interested, and I’m glad I took my camera along. It was good to get some new pictures after being in lockdown for so many weeks.

Social distancing was easy. Who else would want to hang round an old dump?

Thoughts on Hair

I realised I needed a haircut.

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A few days ago just before the UK went into a lockdown, I realised I needed a haircut. My barber had closed to limit spread of the Coronavirus, so I decided to take responsibility, and actioned a DIY buzzcut. This was something I had always wanted to try but I never had the guts due to the client-facing nature of my work. Facing weeks of working from home, I decided it was now or never. This was my opportunity.

As hair fell to the ground on Sunday morning, 22nd March, I was worried. The only clippers I had to hand were actually a combined beard trimmer and shaver. Would it be up to the job of cutting head hair? Did I know enough about hair cutting to actually get through the amount of hair on my head? Would I look awful when the deed was done? These were my main concerns as the clippers buzzed and worked in my hand. However, as the finished look began to emerge I started to feel pretty good.

I have enjoyed a genuine boost in confidence.

For a few days I had a shock every time I walked past a mirror, but I now really like my new look. My hair was past its best anyway, and no longer having to worry about styling it is incredibly liberating. Unexpectedly, I have enjoyed a genuine boost in confidence.

I have yet to go “out” out, and be seen in public places like pubs, bars and restaurants. They are obviously all closed at the moment. My work colleagues have also yet to experience The Big Reveal, whereupon I expect to enjoy some friendly teasing.

Will I have decided to grow it back by the the time normal life resumes? Or will I still be embracing this bald bold new look?

As with everything in life at the moment, I’ll take each day as it comes. There’s a lot of uncertainty in the world right now, and it’s hard to look beyond a horizon of a few days.

Getting Back on Path

Man does not live by photography alone.

To-date, apart from the odd wobble, this blog has been mostly about photography. There’s nothing wrong with having a dedicated blog, and everyone says you should focus and specialise, but I can’t help feel that practice is limiting.

Maybe my own life is reaching one of those turning points. I still love making pictures but it feels a little less important to me than it did say a year ago. Now I’m writing again, and I don’t know where that will lead. Essays, short stories, maybe even another novel?

From now on, I’m going to be taking this blog back to its roots when I ‘restarted’ it in 2015. Here’s something I wrote when I was originally defining what this blog is about.

Will 2020 be The Last Year of Flickr?

I really hope I’m wrong, but I have a sad feeling that 2020 is going to be Flickr’s last year. I’ve been a ‘Pro’ (paying) member of the photo-sharing site since 2006.

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The early years

I remember the earlier years of Flickr very well. For me, it went through a Golden Age which ran from about 2007 until 2010. During those years I found many friends on the site, and am still in touch with a couple of them who post to this day, albeit much less frequently.

After a break of a few years, during which I still made photographs but didn’t feel the need to share so much, I came back in 2013 to find things still going strong. Most of my old friends were still there and I undertook an ambitious 365 project through the site, to try to get my creativity back again.

The community spirit on the site during that year was wonderful. Lots of interaction, lots of constructive criticism, and lots of great photos from other people.

The last days of Yahoo

By 2007 when I joined, Flickr was of course already under Yahoo!’s ownership. I personally didn’t notice whether the departure of Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake in 2008 made a difference, but I’m sure to some people it did.

For me, the big changes happened between 2013 and 2018 during which time Yahoo! was mostly being led by Marissa Meyer. Back in 2013 there was a major UX/UI update which drove many users away, but I stuck with it for a while and actually preferred the new look. I believed the new Yahoo! CEO was going to do great things for Flickr.

Gradually, however, the audience floated away. I stopped using the site regularly at the end of 2013 for personal reasons and posted only sporadically for about four years. Strangely, everyone else appeared to do the same, and over the course of the next five years Flickr faded. I’m not suggesting it was anything to do with Marissa Meyer, because I don’t know whether that was the case. Was it due to lack of investment? Was it due to the rapid growth of Instagram and market competition? I don’t know.

The Smugmug takeover

In 2018 I received the email from SmugMug in which they announced they had bought Flickr and were promising to revitalise the service. I started playing around with it again and began posting images more regularly, but most of the people I knew had long since deserted it.

I had faith, and renewed my Pro membership, looking forward to a rebirth. When the new team got rid of the awful Yahoo! login constraint I was excited for the future. When they moved the platform over to AWS, I really believed they were going to save Flickr.

But the interaction just wasn’t there. The groups weren’t the same, and had become dumping grounds for people who tried desperately to raise their view counts. Flickr had become like Instagram. People liked, but hardly anyone ever commented, which was one of the great things I remembered about Flickr from around 2009-2013.

The email from the CEO

On December 20th, I received an “Important letter from Flickr’s CEO”. I guessed it wouldn’t be a happy letter and braced myself for a shutdown notification, but the news wasn’t quite so bad. However, Flickr, the “world’s most-beloved money-losing business” still needs help, and is not yet making enough money to survive. It needs more paying Pro members.

I believe Flickr is far superior to Instagram for photo-sharing, but without the audience it isn’t going to make it. Me asking the few people who read my blog to sign up is not going to help. It saddens me to think 2020 may go down as The Last Year of Flickr.

Shropshire Diary – Photobook

2009 was a year of quiet introspection for me. Working away from home in Shropshire, I had many long evenings to fill, alone with my camera. Every evening I would upload my images onto Flickr, and I have some wonderful memories of sharing those pictures and receiving inspiring comments from people around the world.

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It took me a long time to recognise that these pictures were documenting an important period in my life. Looking back at them, I remember this time as one of great inner torment and frustration for various reasons, and I am thankful to my Flickr friends for giving me some light during those dark days.

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It wasn’t until ten years later, in 2019, that I finally realised these images needed to be brought together as a small photobook so that I would always have a record of them. I had been struggling with ideas for my first photobook for a long time, and when I realised the answer had been staring me in the face for ten years, everything suddenly made sense.

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The first proof of these books is on its way to me as I write this post. I’m excited to see how they look and feel in my hands as a physical bound volume. If they work, as I feel they will, I intend to order a small run of them and offer copies to anyone who wants to look back in time with me at these quiet moments in my life.

I still practice what I call Diary Photography, and have produced many thousands of images over the last ten years. It probably makes up my largest body of work to-date, and I am certain I will continue to add to this for the rest of my life.

Notes from Susan Sontag On Photography

I recently came into possession of a copy of Susan Sontag’s On Photography, and was delighted to see it contained hand-written notes made in pencil by a previous owner. It has that wonderful musty ‘old book’ smell, and I’m finding it fascinating to go through, picking up on some of the notes and highlights.

The copy itself isn’t that old. It’s a Penguin Modern Classic with a reissued date of 2008, so it’s no older than that. The original was first published in 1977.

Essay #1: In Plato’s Cave

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Another interesting underline in the first essay:

  • The camera is a kind of passport that annihilates moral boundaries and social inhibitions, freeing the photographer from any responsibility toward the people photographed.

Essay #3: Melancholy Objects

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Some more interesting underlines from Essay three:

  • Photography is the inventory of mortality.
  • Photographs state the innocence, the vulnerability of lives heading toward their own destruction, and this link between photography and death haunts all photographs of people.
  • Photographs turn the past into an object of tender regard, scrambling moral distinctions.
  • A photograph could also be described as a quotation.
  • Photographs – and quotations – seem, because they are taken to be pieces of reality, more authentic than extended literary narratives.
  • Photographs furnish instant history, instant sociology, instant participation.
  • A set of photographs that freezes moments in a life or a society contradicts their form, which is a process, a flow in time.
  • Life is not about significant details, illuminated in a flash, fixed forever. Photographs are.

The following seems to sit very nicely with documentary photography, which I’m particularly interested in:

The photographer’s ardour for a subject has no essential relation to its content or value, that which makes a subject classifiable. It is, above all, an affirmation of the subject’s thereness; its rightness (the rightness of a look on a face, of the arrangement of a group of objects), which is the equivalent of the collector’s standard of genuineness; its quiddity – whatever qualities make it unique.

Essay #4: The Heroism of Vision

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Some interesting underlines from essay four:

  • It became clear that there was not just a simple, unitary activity called seeing (recorded by, aided by cameras) but “photographic seeing”, which was both a new way for people to see, and a new activity for them to perform.
  • The proper moment is when one can see things (especially what everyone has already seen) in a fresh way.
  • Moralists who love photographs always hope that words will save the picture.

A particularly wonderful line that really speaks to me about my own practice:

Photographic seeing meant an aptitude for discovering beauty in what everybody sees, but neglects as too ordinary.

Essay #5: Photographic Evangels

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Some interesting underlines from essay five:

  • Despite the efforts of contemporary photographers to exorcise the spectre of art, something lingers. For instance, when professionals object to having their images printed to the edge of the page in books or magazines, they are invoking the models inherited from another art: as paintings are put in frames, photographs should be framed in white space.
  • Photography, like pop art, reassures viewers that art isn’t hard; it seems to be more about subjects than about art.
  • Photography entered the scene as an upstart activity, which seemed to encroach on and diminish an accredited art: painting.

Essay #6: The Image World

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Sontag’s essays on photography are considered one of the classic starting points for anyone wanting to learn more about photography than simply how exposure, focusing, and post-processing works.

To-date I have read most of the essays, and have found them hard-going and academic, often needing to re-read sections multiple times in order to understand what is being suggested. Having said that, I do believe what I have read has made me think a bit more about why, what, and how I photograph something – and I am now especially more aware of the thorny issues of representation and otherness.

The book ends with a ‘Brief Anthology of Quotations’, and I will end this post with my own favourite quote, by American photographer George Tice. This pretty much sums up my own photographic experiences:

As I progressed further with my project, it became obvious that it was really unimportant where I chose to photograph. The particular place simply provided an excuse to produce work … you can only see what you are ready to see – what mirrors your mind at that particular time.

Forever Autumn in Swindon

In late 2018 I began work on a three-month assignment in Swindon, Wiltshire. The following photographs were made while staying in the town. This post is titled after the song from War of The Worlds famously recorded by Justin Hayward, who was born in Dean Street.

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The sun rises over Lydiard Fields, Swindon, 2019.

The M4 motorway is one of the main arteries into Swindon. Junction 16 exits at Lydiard Fields, a business park which takes its name from nearby Lydiard Park, a historic country estate with a large Palladian house that is the ancestral home of the Viscounts Bolingbroke. From here it is just a short drive of ten minutes into the centre of Swindon, making it a popular site for large hotels.

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Covered pedestrian bridge, Swindon, 2019.

The railway line running from Bristol to London slices through the centre of Swindon, hence there are numerous overhead bridges in the town. This one is a covered walkway which leads from the Hawksworth Trading Estate directly into the station, convenient for rail passengers who wish to park their cars on the northwest side of the line, avoiding the busy town centre traffic. At dawn the rising sun illuminates the bridge.

An interesting fact about Swindon: the town is not one, but two – the part known as Old Town which was the original settlement, and the new town which developed with the railway works during the latter part of the nineteenth century. The two towns were joined in 1900.

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Melissa’s Suitcase, Swindon, 2019.

Many large businesses and UK government organisations have sites in Swindon, which means a constant influx of business travellers entering the town and staying in hotels for the duration of the working week. Some weeks it is difficult to find a hotel room at a reasonable rate, simply due to the volume of people staying in the town. The threat of Brexit has already had an impact on the local economy, with the planned closure of the Honda plant leading to the loss of c. 3500 jobs.

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Rugs hung out to dry, Swindon, 2019.

Swindon is a town that suffers from a poor reputation. While it may be true that some areas of the town are considered deprived, that is not a blanket description that can be applied. Old Town is showing strong indications of gentrification, and in other parts of town there are heartening signs that a community spirit exists, and that people still trust their neighbours.

An interesting fact about Swindon: the town was originally a Saxon settlement positioned on top of a hill. The Domesday Book refers to Swindon as ‘Suindune’, which comes from the Anglo-Saxon words ‘swine’ and ‘dun’, together meaning ‘pig hill’. Rumour has it that pigs were once allowed to run through the streets to celebrate the coming of the 5th New Moon of the year.

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Renovation, Swindon, 2019.

A lot of regeneration and development work has taken place in Swindon in recent years. Since the ‘Planning Swindon Together’ blueprint for transforming Swindon was unveiled in 2012, many changes have taken place in the town centre. Not all proposals have been good, such as the plans for the development of a tower block in Old Town, which were quickly withdrawn following a public outcry. The spirit of regeneration seems to have captured hearts and minds, and renovation work has spread to residential areas of the town.

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Swindon, 2019.

Many people describe Swindon as a ‘rough’ town, and crime statistics suggest there are problem areas, with many reported crimes being of a violent nature. However, despite its reputation there are many other towns in Britain with more severe issues – including higher crime rates and higher levels of deprivation. During the time I worked in Swindon I never experienced anything negative other than my own preconceived notions based on hearsay, and never felt threatened in any way.

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No Parking, Swindon, 2019.

Many of Britain’s towns and streets were built in a time before the motor car. As we embraced this mode of travel during the 20th century, our roads became increasingly clogged not just with commuter traffic, but also with parked cars. Swindon is no exception, and many older residential areas cannot cater for the modern two-car household, which inevitably leads to frustration for residents who are rarely able to park outside their own homes.

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Garages, Swindon, 2019.

When Tony Blair visited Toothill Community Centre in 2006 to launch a campaign against anti-social behaviour, his famous pressure hose pose left Swindon with a reputation for having streets painted with mindless graffiti. Swindon Council started to offer a graffiti removal service, and the war against what is seen by some as vandalism continues, but at high cost for the council. Despite appearing to be a modern problem, Graffiti is nothing new, and examples exist which date back to ancient Egypt and the Roman empire.

An interesting fact about Swindon: as well as some examples of genuine street art, the town has lots of public art, including the Sculpture Trail which features an impressive statue of Diana Dors at Shaw Ridge Leisure Park.

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Street sign with shopping trolley, Swindon, 2019.

Three hundred miles north of Swindon in the city of Glasgow there is an equestrian statue of the Duke of Wellington that has been adorned with a traffic cone since the 1980s. In 2013, Glasgow City Council estimated the annual cost of removing cones to be £10000 per annum, and put forward plans to raise the plinth to prevent cones being placed. There was a public outcry leading to withdrawal of the plans, and at least one cone remains to this day. Was the careful placement of this shopping trolley on top of a No Stopping sign in Swindon simply a minor act of vandalism? What is it that elevates such an act into art or iconic status?

An interesting fact about Swindon: there are several iconic buildings in the town, including the David Murray John tower, the Motorola building, and the Spectrum building. The latter two featured in the James Bond film A View to a Kill.

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Hawksworth Trading Estate, Swindon, 2019.

While the town centre is busy with shoppers during the day, there is a stillness and quiet around some of the nearby trading estates and business parks, where people go about their daily working lives inside the many factories and offices.

A final interesting fact about Swindon: over the years the town has had links with many world-famous brands and industries including Intel, Motorola, BMW, Rover, Honda, and the Spitfire aircraft.

 

Information sources:

Born Again Swindonian (https://swindonian.me/).
Information Britain (http://www.information-britain.co.uk/).
Swindon Advertiser (https://www.swindonadvertiser.co.uk/).

Marine Drive

I don’t photograph landscapes very often, especially not my local landscape which most people would describe as totally flat and somewhat dull. However, yesterday evening I went out and tried to make a short series of interesting pictures just a few minutes drive from home. I’m pleased with the results.

Marine Drive is a coastal road in Southport which cuts through an extensive marsh/wetland area where most photographers come specifically to photograph the amazing bird life. It is a recognised RSPB nature reserve site.

Sadly, the area was recently the focus of a search for Adam Seaton, a student who went missing in early August 2018. His body was eventually found in the nearby Ribble Estuary in January 2019, suggesting he may have got into difficulties while carrying out research for geography work he was about to undertake at Edge Hill University.

Liverpool Comic Con 2019

Today I spent a couple of hours photographing some of the visitors to Liverpool Comic Con, held at the Exhibition Centre Liverpool. The wind was crazy, with gale-force gusts blowing hair and bits of costumes everywhere, but spirits were high, even as people queued in the cold to get in.

Comic Con is a big deal, with several events taking place in different citities throughout the year. Many attendees are dedicated enough to go to all the events.

Bec and Takk go to Comic Cons in London or Manchester, and are trying Liverpool for the first time this year. Dan goes to a Comic Con event at least once a year, and loves meeting up with friends. Charlie is attending the Liverpool event for the first time in a while after moving away from the area. Jess comes every year!

Truly a fascinating subculture, with such a diverse and friendly group of people.