“Stories From The Sea”

A talk by Mike Perry on his work “Mor Plas tig”

This talk by Mike Perry illustrates how the history of art continues to influence, and is still relevant to art made today with its focus, in this case, upon environmental issues.

Perry has given the title “Stories From The Sea” to this talk, a phrase appropriated from the work of the British artist Graham Sutherland whose pictures formed the basis for the exhibition “Stories From The Sea: Above, Below And Beyond The Tide” which was on display at Oriel y Parc in 2012. It is acknowledged by Perry that Sutherland’s work informed the title of his talk and that the fact this artist was based for much of his life in Pembrokeshire gives the connection between the two a greater relevance.

However, Perry’s work, Mor Plas tig, is basically a response to environmental issues which were not present for much of Sutherland’s life. Living, as he does near the Pembrokeshire coast Perry often walks his dog on a nearby beach. The amount of plastic he finds washed up on the beach, especially after a storm, he tells us is horrific. This I have witnessed for myself whilst walking our dog at Poppit Sands in Ceredigion. Perry says that some beaches are more prone to this curse of man-made flotsam with Freshwater West being among the worst.

In choosing to photograph the plastic he finds with a 10 x 8 large format camera the detail in the images is profound and what is to all purposes a grave danger to both the wildlife of the planet, mankind and eventually the flora is here given its own beauty. Perry recognises this dilemma but points out through anecdotal stories, one in particular involving the local Women’s Institute group, that by making art from these found objects more people become aware of the serious problems facing the world through this one form of pollution.

Compositionally the images have been informed by the Dusseldorf school founded by Bernd and Hilla Becher who would display photographs of water towers in grid formation. This, Perry notes, mimics the grids found on plastic boxes which are often washed to shore and says his “intention is to reduce the objects to their pure formal states separating them for a moment from any meaning beyond their sculptural presence. I present the objects as grids or in line sequence emphasising the infinite choice offered by our consumer culture and to provide an aesthetic framework where colours and forms can work off each other”.

Other artists Perry cites that are relevant to the grid appropriation are the photographer Thomas Struth, a student of the Bechers at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf and Agnes Martin whose sketches of grids were probably made, he postulates, as a means to contain or illustrate her schizophrenia.

It is obvious to many of us that consumerism has gone berserk in the world today and now, when plastic is causing physical harm to our wildlife, being consumed as microscopic particles by birds and fish so much so that it is now entering our food chain it is of vital importance that artists and scientists alert the population of these dangers so that we can act now, possibly not to eliminate the threat but at least to stop it getting any worse.

Mike Perry’s website can be accessed here

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Disparately Seeking Swansea. Second day/part three.

Despite today’s slow start there are now lots of new thoughts to keep me occupied so much so that after leaving the café I realise that I have totally forgotten about getting lunch myself and as it is now 3pm it really is a bit too late.

There is a homeless couple, judging from their collection of bags, sitting on the pavement almost outside M&S. I had seen the girl before and so stopped off to talk to them. She was reading a book the last time I had seen her and she had one this time too, they also have a dog. I do not know how they both came to find themselves on the street but I was to learn of the bureaucracy that was keeping them there. Sherry who will be twenty-nine on the 29th April was originally from Bath her partner Sean was from Swansea. Sean should have qualified to get some form of accommodation had he been single but as Sherry was from Bath, in other words alien to Swansea, she was not able to get accommodation and having a dog meant she could not get a hostel bed for the night. Also it would seem that most hostels only take single people some such as the order of nuns The Sisters of Mercy only take men!

Sherry also has emphysema a progressive disease of the lungs that I am told by other people who suffer the condition can be hereditary. Sherry’s is due to sleeping rough for many years, outside in all weathers. They choose to sleep in shop doorways rather than subways so as to keep away from the many addicts that frequent these places. Of course this means being subjected to the elements plus abuse from drunks on a Friday and Saturday night but still preferable to some of the other places available. There is a wide variety of reactions to these people from indifference to hostility and in some cases people are actually very caring of them. A seventy-year-old middle class lady and her teenage grandson arrive and sit down to give Sherry a cuddle and have their photograph taken with her.
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There is a lesson to be learnt here. Taking the time to be in one place and watch situations unfold his so important to successful photographic practise. Watching things as they unfold eventually means we can see things almost before they happen. And hopefully be prepared.

It is by now almost time for me to be leaving but I need to thank the Salvation Army man, one day I really do need to ask his name, but he is engrossed deep in conversation with someone who may be homeless. He has no bags, which Sean and Sherry have told me is a sign that he has some shelter at night. He is telling the Salvation Army man that he has committed many sins and needs God to forgive him and would like his sins to be dissolved by a blessing.

 

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Disparately Seeking Swansea. Second day/part two.

Pottery Street Subway, I hate to be seen as being sceptical but there is something akin to a “makeover” here. I am reminded of the garden design programmes; “garden makeovers” popular on TV at one time which although superficially producing a nice garden, which would then revert back to its normal state quite rapidly. The subway has been subjected to an intensive weekend of graffiti – fication. I always thought graffiti was an organic process, art by the people in response to social issues. It would seem this is no longer true. Along with everything else it has become Privatised!  Again the Wales Online website brings us a truly wonderful concept when it says the subway has been transformed by “sanctioned graffiti artists” in an “urban art event” by “Fresh Murals Co.” Who are these people and what do they charge?

I may be being a little harsh here, Fresh Murals Co. do provide much needed Youth Workshops but they list among their clients Coca Cola and Nestle, two companies with hardly a clean track record or so we have been led to believe and so their work is not totally altruistic. Also the subway is now at least in parts bright and clean but surely the cleaning is the duty of the council? There is no doubt that money has been spent on the area but it is my contention that this money could be better used in providing shelter for the homeless and by doing that the subway would no longer be required as a night shelter.

The man from the Salvation Army also told me that I should visit St. Mathews church if I was going to be in this part of town. Half of the church of St. Mathews is a restaurant. It has been closed for the last two years after the finance executive in charge of what was then Cyrenians Cymru allegedly committed fraud to a value of £1.25 million. The café has now reopened under the name Matt’s Café whilst Robert Mark Davies will be sentenced at Cardiff Crown court on the 25th April 2017.

Supported financially by the congregation in the other half of the church and also working in conjunction with The Real Junk Food (TRJF) Project Matt’s Café provides meals to anyone on a pay as you can afford basis. Many people cannot afford anything and this is fine but if you can pay then you should. Many of the diners here are homeless, there are those who although they may have shelter are in some way dependant on care in the community and there are some who are students at the nearby college of art. At present all of those that work there are volunteers, from Sally, in her sixties, Kay who is seventy and the younger staff working in the kitchens they all work tirelessly and with enthusiasm. The Real Junk Food (TRJF) Project is a worldwide organisation working to reclaim and redistribute food that would otherwise end up as landfill to people who need it. In Swansea they have so far secured donations from Tesco and several of the traders in Swansea Market and are hoping to get donations from Sainsbury and Morrisons in the near future.

Here are a couple of people who are benefiting from the work provided by Matt’s Cafe. Firstly Roger who takes it upon himself to keep the churchyard in good order despite his ongoing battle against Japanese Knotgrass.

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And Mervyn.

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Disparately Seeking Swansea. Second day.

 

It is over two weeks since my first visit to Swansea and it is the Tuesday after Easter which according to the talk on the St. Helens Road is why it is so quiet. The Salvation Army man waiting patiently for donations outside one of the indoor market’s entrances echoes this feeling. But it is a cold morning and it is still relatively early, 9.30am in fact and I have been here for the last hour. There was no movement at Zac’s Place when I arrived there, someone tells me later that they shut up quickly after the morning breakfast hour for the homeless (8am – 9am) but there is no movement there at 9.05am and the telephone number given on the notice board I ring is not available. The thought that this my second visit would be easier was rapidly leaving my brain and as very little was happening I sat on a wall and waited for something to find me. Very little did happen except the sun was beginning to come out and it was getting warmer.

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Apart from making contact with the organisers of Zac’s Place the only other real plan I had was to find a subway that went underneath the railway line near the station. I had been past the railway station many times and had not noticed any subway but with instructions from the Salvation Army man I was able to easily find it. Known as the Pottery Street Subway it has a reputation as being a hotspot for “anti social behaviour” if we are to believe the Wales Online website. In reality I think the truth is that it was used, and still is, by homeless people some of which may have drug/alcohol related problems. It is undeniable that there is a drug problem amongst the homeless. Many people, largely fuelled by the sensationalist “pseudo news” for want of a better phrase by the tabloid press, are of the impression that drugs are the cause of the plight of the homeless and this is a view that is partially echoed and pandered to in the response of government after government in their simplistic law making. Only this week the Guardian newspaper has run several pieces about the designer drug “Spice”. Manufactured in Chinese laboratories to mimic the effects of cannabis “Spice” goes way beyond this remit producing something that is potentially life threatening, extremely addictive and psychosis inducing. Reports suggest that this was not always the case but prompted by the recent banning by the government of the so called “legal highs” the strength of this drug has been vastly increased by concentration therefore making it easier to smuggle.

For a more detailed insight visit the Guardian –  https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/20/spice-terrifying-drug-panic-wont-make-go-away

The article is quite adamant in stating that drug use is a response to and not a cause of the homelessness.

Of course this has a knock on effect; more money is spent in the courts and by the police and this takes money away from where it is needed – helping those whose lives have not been easy and now find themselves vulnerable and homeless.

I find it quite incredible that what was started as possibly a short term project has had such an effect upon me but it is extremely humbling to be able to meet with the people that I have yet to write about and not be affected by the injustice present in today’s society.

I found the Pottery Street Subway and as usual someone spots the camera. He spoke very poor English but asked me to take his picture and that of his daughter. There are not many bad people out there but there is an awful amount of bad reporting in the press and all too many people prepared to believe it.

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Disparately Seeking Swansea. Day One Part Two.

The second half of the day was to prove more productive than the first. I was aware that the ISKCON followers who run the Govinda restaurant in Swansea have at some point provided free meals to the homeless people in Swansea and also in Cardiff so it was there I headed to for lunch. Apart from being a good source of information it proved to be a very good place for a vegetarian lunch. They told me that they were not allowed to feed the homeless on the streets of Swansea and whereas they had been allowed to do this in Cardiff until recently the police had now stopped them. They did point me in the direction of an organisation that I will be contacting on my next visit.

Founded by Sean Stillman in 1998 Zac’s Place is a form of Christian missionary actively helping those in need whether they are homeless or have drug or alcohol related problems and has “over the years …….. earned a reputation for providing a safe haven and an environment of pro-active care and concern for some of Swansea’s most alienated people.”

It is not only the homeless community I am attempting to document but a fairly representative cross section of people of all backgrounds and ethnicity. I realise that this may be a difficult thing to achieve but I have absolutely no idea as to where the highest level of resistance will come from. The St. Helens Road is, when compared to the city centre, a relatively deprived area consisting of many Asian cafes, restaurants and grocery stores. I did not know how I would be able to get a foot hold into this community. I was until twenty years ago visiting Southall in London on a reasonably regular basis and found it to be a very friendly place where I felt quite at home. However, I had also visited areas in Slough at that time and had found them whilst not hostile certainly unfriendly. I would be interested to revisit Slough to see if things have changed at all. As it was I did not find St. Helens Road either friendly or unfriendly, some people would say hello and others did not it was the same as anywhere else with people going about their daily lives. Except it was still quite early so not many people. I carried on with my wandering around and now, after lunch returning to this road many people who had noticed me earlier, conspicuous with a large camera, would suddenly start talking to me. Drawn to the camera they wanted to know what I was doing and were genuinely interested in my project. One general store run by a Kurdish family invited me in, to where at the back of the store was a small kitchen which was their bakery. A large gas fired Tandoori oven produced four hundred Kurdish flat breads each day. I did not have to ask to take photographs they actively encouraged it and when I left they insisted I take away some bread with no charge at all.

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 But now it was back to the train stopping off to hear London’s Burning accompanied by Simon Spoons!

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Disparately Seeking Swansea. Day One Part One.

This will be the first of several blog posts relating to my Swansea trips to document the people and divisions within the towns environment. The title and in particular the use of the word “disparate” refers to the increasingly wide variations in lifestyle and wealth apparent in the town as well as to the accompanying ranges in architecture and housing.

The project is a natural progression to my love of street photography which, as outlined in my previous post, has been given impetus by a Bursary award from the Patricia Penn Bursary Fund. It also coincides with the BA work for my second year Negotiated Project and will possibly be carried on into my final year and dissertation.

A cold but bright day, Monday 27th March 2017, and at 7.30 am. I board the train from Clunderwen to Swansea. It is not since the mid 1970’s that I have travelled by rail and much has changed, no more cosy cabins with sliding door and corridor to one side but something more akin to a bus. Much has changed in Swansea too, it is roughly twenty years since I last visited apart from attending a symposium at the Glynn Vivian Gallery a few weeks earlier (blog post on symposium posted), but it is still the same in essence. The first obvious change I notice is that both the underpass (where homeless people congregated) and roundabout at the intersection of Orchard Street and the Kingsway are no longer there. I am not sure why this has changed but I have since learnt that another underpass is having a makeover in an attempt to expel the homeless.

Being my first photographic trip to the city I really did not anticipate a vast amount to photograph and was treating the visit as a basis for further trips. Everywhere seemed to be very quiet and apart from a few grabbed images little took my eye. Having walked a circuit from the railway station which took me down the Kingsway, up to Mansell Street and along Walter Street before dropping down to the St. Helen’s Road, then through the town ending up once again near to the station the only thing to do was to do it all again this time without Walter Street. On arriving back in the city centre there were now more people and a busker played on a street corner with a reasonably good audience. Amongst the onlookers was an ageing man, rough weather beaten face, long grey pony tail and beard with a large bag containing everything he owned. Both the busker and the homeless man were very friendly and approachable. I learnt that the older of the two also busked but would not be starting for a few hours. He played the spoons, something I had not seen for a while and he played them along with songs by Ian Dury and The Clash, something I had never seen or heard before. So I arranged to be back later when I could hear the Punk revival played on the spoons!

On Being Awarded Funding from The Patricia Penn Bursary Fund.

The Patricia Penn Bursary Fund was set up to help students who want to highlight social injustice through their chosen artistic medium.

Having never heard of the charitable trust it was my course tutor, Iain Davies, Head of Photography at the Carmarthen School of Art, who brought it to my attention, and I duly completed the application form and attached five images recently taken in Carmarthen and promptly forgot about it. I was very pleased and surprised to be even considered for a Patricia Penn Bursary and when I learnt that they would be giving me the grant to pursue one of my favourite photographic subjects I was quietly shocked. Not that it is a vast amount of money and neither does it guarantee fame and fortune in what is probably a backwater of photographic practise today but it means a great deal to me both in terms of funding my trips and also the recognition it has given that I might be doing something useful for society.

There is little information to be had about the Fund, apart from the application form on their website there are only the words “this is a memorial bursary for Patricia Penn, who believed in the potential of art to change the world and who dedicated her life to widening participation in art practice.” It is certainly a view that I subscribe to and I only hope I can make a difference however small to the social injustices that continue today in what is loosely termed “civilisation”.

In the early part of 2016 I had visited the Aberystwyth University gallery to see the exhibition “Under The Bridge: Being Homeless in Cardiff” by the photographer Andrew McNeill. The stark black and white images (already reviewed in a previous blog) certainly portrayed the hardships these people had endured in their lives and made me wonder how many people in the UK were actually homeless and sleeping rough, probably more than official figures would have us believe. In some ways it reminded me of my first job after completing my A Levels in 1973 when I was “play leader” on an adventure playground in a very deprived area of Reading, Berkshire. Even though these children lived in houses their lives were not a million miles away from the people depicted in these photographs and so it was with this thought that I came to the conclusion I too should try to make a slight difference by making this theme central to one part of my photographic work.

Since becoming a beneficiary of this bursary it has become apparent that I can produce a body of work, not only in Swansea which is my current project, but also closer to home. Wherever we look there is poverty at some level and soon to be implemented government cuts handed down from one Tory government to the next will increase child poverty when what we should be doing is to decrease it. In every town, even here in Cardigan, we have food banks, also other charities ministering to the needs of the poor and those with mental health issues and these will constitute further projects if they are still needed and sadly I think they will be.

A selection of the images used in my bursary application.

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The Lure of the Archive (A visit to a symposium at the Glynn Vivian Gallery Swansea)

Aimed to coincide with the opening of the exhibition “The Moon and a Smile” coordinated by Falmouth University at the Glynn Vivian Gallery, the symposium, “The Lure of the Archive” dealt primarily with the archive of early experiments in photography, 1840’s and 1850’s, concentrating on Mary Dillwyn and John Dillwyn Llewelyn and to a lesser extent their mansion home and estate Penllergare.

John Dillwyn Llewelyn was primarily a botanist. He came to photography early in its inception in 1839 partially through the fact that his wife was a first cousin of Henry Fox Talbot. Being a keen scientist he became known for developing the Oxymel process in 1856 which allowed colloidal plates to be prepared well in advance of the image being made. Previously this had to be done immediately before use. Although much has been written about John his work overshadowed that of his younger sister Mary Dillwyn who was certainly his equal as a photographer.

Archive material, as the name of the symposium suggests, forms the premise of the exhibition which includes the work of ten artists working mainly in the medium of photography. Artists in the exhibition were Greta Alfaro, Anna Fox, Astrid Kruse Jensen, Neeta Madahar and Melanie Rose, Sharon Morris, Sophie Rickett, Helen Sear and Patricia Ziad. As could be expected the interpretation of the subject was dealt with in widely different styles with each artist working within the framework of their previous work.

Appropriation in one form or another is the basis for most of the work in the exhibition. Anna Fox in her contribution has brought the theme in a major part of her work to date, that of the leisure industry, to photographing the locations of Dillwyn Llewelyn’s photographs that have become themselves places of leisure for the general public. In keeping with the advances to photography made by Llewelyn she has employed state of the art equipment and processes in her image making. She explains that, using a digital Hasselblad, she first makes a base image after which she will take other frames which will then be digitally merged with the base layer. To achieve this, she works with a large team, lighting engineers, technicians and post production artists. It is interesting to note that she sees this process as having led her to “think more intently about photography, time and memory”, and that “the picture made up of many images represents what has been seen over a period of time and so has a new relationship to the notion of what constitutes a documentary photograph.”

Helen Sear in her contribution for “The Moon and a Smile” a film entitled “Moments of Capture” has combined motifs already found in her work, such as a figure in the landscape with their back to the camera, with imagery from the Dillwyn Llewelyn catalogue. The film opens with a female figure with back turned to the camera holding stag’s antlers to her head, a reference to Llewelyn’s photograph of a stag in the landscape, which incidentally was a stuffed stag! From there it moves on to other aspects found in Llewelyn’s work, a shoreline and a reference to his sailing ships is portrayed by a modern day wind turbine and the changing landscape is alluded to in images of the blast furnace at Port Talbot.

However, for me, the most lasting impression of the symposium came from the work and the passionate speaking from two of the other artists Greta Alfaro and Sharon Morris.

Sharon Morris, professor of poetry at the Slade School and originally from West Wales, gave an impassioned lecture and poetry reading in both Welsh and English which when combined with the imagery of her photographic work highlighted the social injustices that were prevalent during the time of Dillwyn Llewelyn and of his attitude to the common people of the time most notably in his role to quell the Rebecca Riots despite being well known as a philanthropist giving money to good causes and also her love of the Welsh landscape vandalised in places by heavy industrialisation.

Greta Alfaro’s work involved beautiful imagery presented against slabs of Welsh slate. For her this represented the “elegance and refinery of the Dillwyn Llewelyn photographs” and the contrasting “accounts of poverty and pollution” In another impassioned resume of her work she describes there being “something dark and foggy, grey and dirty, all around the atmosphere of this project.” To this end she has taken quotes from Frederick Engels The Condition of the Working Classes to highlight the disparities between the people of this Victorian era. One piece of her work carries the inscription “The philanthropy of the rich is like a rain drop in the ocean lost in the moment of falling”

There are a great many ideas to be learnt from the day, some of which I may not yet have seen. Firstly, there is the element of appropriation that can be used in one’s own work, whether it be locations, processes or hints at earlier photographic practises as in Anna Fox’s photo collages bringing a modern twist to the long exposures of Dillwyn Llewelyn’s day.

Secondly there was the question posed but not spoken by Morris and Alfaro, that is, is appropriation enough? Today, as in the Victorian era, there are many injustices, abroad and at home. For me this must be an important question. If we merely look back at the past with rose tinted glasses how can we deal with the problems of the world today? Should we be engaged in merely reporting events or encompass this within a social narrative? There was a lot more to be taken away from this day than at first met the eye.

 

Tibetan Singing Bowls

I have been asked by my friends at the Shruti Box Company, https://www.shrutibox.co.uk/ whose website photography I undertook last year, to provide photographs of their collection of antique and rare Tibetan Singing Bowls.  Copper and tin are the main constituents in these bowls and these metals are the only metals still used today in their manufacture. These bowls however are old coming from a time when other metals were present due to the lack of know how in their removal and can contain up to seven different metals. This is to their advantage, each bowl has a unique tone and longevity in its vibrations. This does mean, however, that they are difficult items to photograph, reflections and spectral highlights abound.

Normal lighting, I found created unwanted highlights and so the only alternative left to me was to construct a light tent. In order to produce a test shot at little cost I purchased some transparent shower curtains. These were draped over an upside down plastic picnic table with the Singing Bowl placed inside. Lights were placed to the left and right of the camera position close to the sides of the tent. After an initial exposure a further light was placed close to the camera to eliminate shadows. The setup is yet to be tweaked, there being the probable need of a further light to the rear of the set which would result in a better definition of the bowls rather irregular edge.

This is all to come to fruition over the next few weeks, the bowls are currently being cleaned and catalogued and should be delivered to me around the 15th of this month so there will soon be updates to this post. Meanwhile here is a provisional test shot.

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Good Shoes!

This blog post takes us back to the streets. Having now submitted my entries for the street photography category in the Sony World Open competition and having put forward my costing plans for the bursary I am being considered for, it is, I thought, a good time to look back and take stock of what I have done so far and learnt from my latest batch of street photographs. These were taken over a couple of days in Carmarthen.

Firstly, it would be a good idea to explain the title of this post, shoes are not generally something we consider to be part of the photographer’s equipment list. We all have shoes. But having spent time waiting for photographs to happen on the streets of Carmarthen I can vouch for the fact that a lot of walking is involved. The Magnum photographer David Hurn would tell his students that one of the most vital pieces of equipment for the reportage photographer is a good pair of walking shoes. Unsurprisingly he is correct.

Assuming that we are conversant with using our cameras Hurn has only two major points to make; being in the right position, and pressing the shutter button at the right moment. This last point has echoes going back to Cartier Bresson’s Decisive Moment but it also has a relationship with the first point Hurn makes about how we position ourselves.

People watching can be fascinating for some and this is probably why some photographers are drawn to street photography and others are not. With some experience and practise I have found it possible to almost predict when something is going to happen. Not that it always does, but sometimes even more than was anticipated happens.

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In the above image I had watched the three people walking down the street and thought there was a possible photograph coming up but to have the man on the mobile phone looking at the two young men and to have the middle one in the group looking at me all at that split second was something special. I actually think the middle one knew what was going on as we exchanged smiles.

One of the things that has surprised me is that a large percentage of the time, especially when you least expect it, is that the photographer becomes invisible. Possibly this is down to having a positive attitude. In the next photograph I was determined to get a picture but there was a lot of movement, light levels were low but I just stood there waiting for the right moment not knowing if it would indeed happen. Another thing that is indispensable in this situation is to have the camera ready for when that moment arrives and with all this in place it was simply a matter of pressing the button when the chance arose. As I was only about six feet away from the subject it is surprising I was not noticed, but they just did not see me.

 

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This last image was taken with flat lighting and not much light. But a street scene with strong sunlight gives the photographer an altogether different range of possibilities. The combination of sunlight and buildings give us deep shadows and strong highlights. Useful as a device for framing a subject. The next two images illustrate this.

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The image above was again the happy result of anticipating what was about to happen and being ready. In contrast the next picture required a little waiting. For a strong image I thought the subject needed to be looking at me; eventually this happened and I got the picture.

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To sum up; it is really all about practise, patience and a good pair of shoes for a long day spent on your feet.