Thursday, July 13, 2006

Normal service will be resumed...

... at some future date. Probably! I'm taking a break from posting for a while. Work, and a few other issues prompt me to stop for now. Thanks for looking.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Low-cost architecture

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It must be extremely satisfying to make good, low-cost architecture out of simple materials. It must also be very difficult! Given a large amount of money, a great location and an interesting brief, most architects should be able to come up with a structure that meets the client's requirements and contributes something significant to the site: Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Richard Rogers do it all the time! But, a nailed-down brief, a tight budget, and an undistinguished setting make the job much more of a challenge.

In the UK, particularly in the period from the 1950s through to the 1980s, public sector architects worked in this way, and produced some of the best buildings of those years. Critics will say that they produced some of the worst too, citing grim high-rise flats, windy council estates and drab concrete multi-storey car parks. And yes, the output was not of uniformly high quality. But, buildings like Rookwood Infant School, Eastleigh (1981) or the public library at Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire (1970), despite the constraints noted above, match the best that the private sector produced at this time. The photograph above shows the north elevation of a children's nursery in Fleetwood, Lancashire. It was built by Lancashire County Council's architect's department in the mid-1970s, and it exemplifies some of the qualities that I admire. The building is faced with brick, areas of dark timber cladding, has mainly floor to ceiling glazing, and is capped by a monopitch roof. The strength of its design comes from the careful attention to proportion, the outlining of shapes, the contrast of surfaces, and the way the main forms visually and actually interlock. These combine to give it an integrity that is a pleasure to see.

My photograph shows some of the basic underlying forms of the building, and benefits particularly from the nice detail of the curved wall that hides and encloses the bins and also borders the adjoining primary school playground. I used this sweep of brick in my composition to take the eye, from the left, through to the window line in the main wall, and then along and up to the apex of the dark roof. The painted lines on the playground helped the image by echoing some of the angles above, and by adding visual interest to the lower right. Despite this elevation, naturally, being in shadow, the shapes and tones collectively produced a photograph that pleases me.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Consumer not very durables

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"Consumer durable - a product such as an automobile or an appliance whose life expectancy is at least three years", from Global Investor: Glossary

How long should an iPod last? Recently the newspapers have carried articles about unhappy consumers whose players have died after a few months, and, even though many are pleased with Apple's replacements policy, some have started to question the likely lifespan of these must-have products, and factored it into their buying decisions.

Apparently the typical life span of a television is 10 years, for a microwave oven it's 7 years, for a computer, 5 years, and a mobile phone only 4 years. I find that last one hard to believe: many people I know seem to replace them yearly, though people like me who use their son's cast-offs probably help to explain the longer figure! There are those who think that these relatively short lifespans are good, because it brings newer, better specified products, and keeps people in employment. However, many think that the earth can't sustain the true cost of the rate at which we buy, use and replace "stuff". A product's obsolescence comes about for four basic reasons: it's irreparable, the cost of repair is uneconomic, new products have improved features, and people's desire for new and fashionable products. All of these reasons are areas where manufacturers and consumers could do something to increase product lifespans. Items can be made that are easier to repair, either by the user or a tradesman. Modular design can be encouraged so that products can be upgraded, rather than replaced, to allow the owner to take advantage of improvements. And buyers can stop being fashion-slaves and see products as tools that do a job rather than lifestyle accessories that reflect their socio-economic status. This won't happen quickly, but there are small signs that it may happen in response to re-use and recycling legislation, the growing ecological awareness of consumers, and the ageing population who have a greater expectation that their consumer durables will be durable!

The folding chairs in the photograph wouldn't I suppose, count as consumer durables. However, they are 66 years old and still in use: that's a long life for a folding chair. It comes about because these are well-made from materials (wood and steel) that can be fixed. They are brought out for use by the audience on sporting occasions at the school where I photographed them. Furniture can last a long time if it is well-made. I have a chaise longue that has been in daily use since I bought it in 1974. It has been recovered half a dozen times by me. It must have begun its life in about 1890! I took the photograph above because I liked the ripple-like, undulating patterns made by the tops of the rows of the stacked chairs. The dynamic quality that comes from the diagonal composition made this the best of the series of shots that I took using a 70mm (35 mm equivalent) macro lens that happened to be on the camera at the time.
photographs & text (c) T. Boughen

Monday, July 10, 2006

Greenbottle lifestyle

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"Time flies like an arrow, fruit flies like a banana", Groucho Marx (1890-1977), US comedian

Greenbottles (Lucilia caesar) are engaging little chaps. An iridescent green blow-fly 8-15mm long, they are never happier than when they are laying eggs on the putrid flesh of a dead sheep or a road-kill rabbit. Unless that is they are watching their larval offspring chewing their way through the festering open sore of a cow or goat. As a break from these engrossing pastimes they spend many happy hours feeding on piles of steaming dung! Oh, and now and then they drink nectar from lovely flowers like this white marguerite (Chrysanthemum frutescens).

But it's not all highlife eating and drinking for the greenbottle! Oh no, some of the more adventurous larvae go around inflicting asthma and rhinoconjunctivitis on humans who sell them as fish bait. And they really love the outdoor life, rarely venturing into houses, happy in whatever weather their home countries in Europe and Asia can throw at them. They can even be seen on walls enjoying the sunshine in the depths of winter! Life for the greenbottle seems to consist of pleasure upon pleasure. And, though we may turn up our noses in disgust at such a lifestyle, it is in fact a benefit to us all. The French naturalist, Jean-Henri Fabre (1823-1915) , speaking of the offspring of the greenbottle observed, "... the maggot is a power in this world. To give back to life with all speed, the remains of that which has lived, it macerates and condenses corpses, distilling them into an essence wherewith the earth, the plant's foster mother, may be nourished and enriched."

I think this is the first insect photograph that I've posted - they're not something I usually shoot. It was the metallic green of the this particular fly that caused me to photograph it before the bees that were also around these marguerites. I used a hand-held macro lens at 200 ISO, a high shutter speed, and consequently a relatively shallow depth of field, and stayed sufficiently far back to include the radiating petals which lead towards the greenbottle as it probed for nectar in the centre of the flower. Post processing included lightening the fly to reveal more detail.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Photographer in court

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Have you ever taken a photograph on the London Underground? Yes? Well I hope you had the necessary permit, otherwise you were breaking the law! How about shots in Trafalgar Square or any of the royal parks? Fine, but don't try and sell any copies, because if you do you'll break the byelaws! And those shots of Canary Wharf or the Lloyds building - make sure you're on public property when you press the shutter, or you may be asked by men in uniform to wipe your memory card.

There used to be a feeling that photographers could photograph anything they liked. That was never the case - the owners of private property have always had the right to restrict or ban photography on their land. But would you imagine that "private" included National Trust properties, and should it? In their (not our) stately homes and castles you can take photographs for private use, but you can't use them commercially or in publications. This is to protect their copyright and the income the Trust gets from licencing images. Fair enough you might think, until you remember that public money and tax breaks form part of the National Trust's income. However, if you were to take the photograph from a public right of way (but not a permitted path), it would seem you can use the image as you wish! And how about images of people? Some celebrities have copyrighted their image to profit from it and to control usage. Many UK schools forbid parents taking still or video images of pupil performances due to fears about paedophiles. So what about photographs of people in the street, incidental to the main subject, or as the main subject? It seems to be OK to take such shots for private use, but clearly a model release is necessary for commercial purposes. Counter-terrorism legislation and heightened police awareness has increased the suspicion of photographers, particularly in major cities. The right to take images is being restricted more than formerly, and case law is slowly codifying what photographers can and cannot do. If you don't want to be the one who tests the existing case law then this freely downloadable document (pdf), "Photographers' Rights in the UK" by Linda Macpherson, is the minimum essential reading. An equivalent document for the USA is available here, and for Australia here. These are useful things to carry to use in your argument with the overzealous who try to restrict your rights!

I thought about these issues when I took a photograph of myself, reflected in the windows of the Wyre Magistrates Court at Fleetwood, Lancashire, on a dull and windy day. I hadn't noticed the faintly visible sign inside saying "Number 2 Court"! The glazing grid, the yellow/brown of the chairs, and the distorted reflected cars, sea, sky and yours truly made an interesting shot on which to hang some thoughts about the legal complexities that photographers face today.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Saturday, July 08, 2006

The wonder of wildlife

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When the BBC makes programmes like "Life on Earth" or "The Living Planet" it sees itself as fulfilling its public service remit, particularly the requirement to educate and entertain. Few people would disagree that these big budget, natural history series do both of these things admirably. But do they?

People watch the programmes in large numbers, both in Britain - I've watched them myself - and in other countries where they are sold, so clearly they do entertain. But what does the audience remember of what it sees, and how is their understanding of the natural world enlarged? One of my concerns is that the impact of the images presented - killer whales snatching seals off the beach, dolphins herding shimmering shoals of fish, polar bears trekking across ice floes in driving snow - is so overwhelming that any deeper understanding is lost to the power of the pictures. As the presenter skips from desert to deepest jungle, from Patagonia to the Pacific atolls, the narrative thread that underpins the programme is lost as we stare in wonder at the visual feast that expert naturalist/film-makers put before us. And I wonder if, after watching all this, the general public is disappointed, even dismissive of, the wildlife in their small part of the world, and the way it appears to them when they look at it.

Young children, thankfully, experience awe and wonder at the tiniest creatures that come their way. The other day I was watching some seven year olds looking at pond life, and shared their delight as they found dozens of tiny frogs. I took this photograph of one of these common amphibians on the hand of a child. I used a macro lens to get in quite close, but stayed far enough back to show the contrast in size between fingers and frog. As they talked excitedly to each other about the creatures they found, I couldn't help but reflect that this experience would stay with them a long time, and influence their appreciation of the animals around them, much more than watching glossy wildlife TV.
photographs & text (c) T. Boughen

Friday, July 07, 2006

Nymphaea alba

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"See, dear, what thy lover brings;
'Tis the flower with the white wings.
Buoyed upon the quiet stream
In the spring it lay adream." from With a Water-Lily, Hendrik Ibsen (1828-1906), Norwegian playwright

The beauty of the water lily (Nymphaea family) has long been recognised, probably because it is one of the largest flowers that blooms on the surface of ponds, streams and rivers. Its beauty has caused it to achieve a special status in many cultures.

The ancient Egyptians gave particular prominence to two species of water lily (N. caerulia and N. lotus), the latter also known as the lotus flower. In their architecture the flower was used as inspiration for the capital of a widely used column, and both flowers appear regularly in painting and carving. It continues to be the national flower of that country. Bangladesh gives the flower a similar prominence, featuring it on the national insignia and medals. Hinduism and Buddhism hold the flower to be sacred, and a pink blossomed variety is frequently used in religious art.

The most common species of water lily found in Britain (and much of Europe) is N. alba, shown above. Claude Monet (1840-1926) is widely known for his impressionistic paintings of this variety that grew (and still grows) in his garden at Giverny in France. Other artists who have been inspired by the flower include the poets, Ted Hughes, Rainer Maria Rilke, and the playwright Ibsen. Most painters and writers have celebrated its beauty, but others have written about the tension surrounding a loveliness that has its birth in murky depths.

I was fortunate to be able to reach over the water to capture my image of a water lily, and consequently I made the
subject the flower alone. The deep yellow, anemone-like centre, and the radial overlapping white petals are familiar enough. However, it was early evening when I took the photograph, and the low sun was making attractive shadows and textures within the petal, and also showing a warm hint of pink towards the base of the bud. This gave a quality I hadn't noticed before. I used a macro lens for the shot, and did a little post-processing to darken the surrounding water.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Miniature magnificence

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Almshouses (also called poorhouses in the United States and elsewhere) have a long history in Britain. The first was established by King Athelstan in tenth century York, and the oldest surviving almshouse - the Hospital of St Oswald in Worcester- is of this period. They are charitable housing, often built by a trust or benefactor, and designed to meet the needs of the poor and elderly of an area. Most were designed as a single building, divided up into independent living accommodation, often with areas, e.g. gardens, to be shared by all the residents. Almshouses continued to be built until the twentieth century, and in Britain about 2,600 of them still provide a home for about 36,000 people.

These almshouses at Stydd, near Ribchester, Lancashire, were built in 1728. They came about as a result of the will of John Shireburne of Stoneyhurst. This stipulated that, on his death, he wanted to found and build "a good almshouse on his estate at Stydd for 5 poor persons to live separately therein." Roman Catholic widows and spinsters were particularly to be favoured as potential residents. The building is now managed by a housing association, though until recently the terms of the original will were closely followed. So, why were John Shireburn's wishes translated into such an imposing, albeit on a small scale, building? Was it to reflect the status of the giver? Or perhaps the taste of the executors is what we see? Was it to add to the beautification of the location or the donor's estate? Perhaps it was guilt - the givers wanted to offer the poor something that they had enjoyed in life! Whatever the reason, these particular almshouses, and such buildings elsewhere, are often quite decorative. Which is odd, since plainer architecture would presumably release money for additional dwellings. The architectural historian, Nikolaus Pevsner described the building as "very curious and very engaging", and it is an odd mix of the grand and the prosaic in such a small building. However, these qualities combined with its rural location must have made it a pleasant place to live for the successive inhabitants of the last 278 years.

I'm very interested in the history of architecture, and so I like photographing buildings. This early morning shot of the building is designed to show the almshouse in all its miniature magnificence, so I took it from the front to emphasise the classically-inspired symmetry, the splendid pediment, arches, columns and stairs, and the contrast of the stone and brick. I included a little of the surrounding greenery, and didn't mind the trees' shadows since they hint at its rural setting.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Architecture and colour

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There is a continuum between the architectural photograph that is a record of a building, and the photograph of a piece of architecture that simply uses the building as a subject from which to extract form, pattern, colour or some other aesthetic quality. At some point between these extremities is the photograph that tries to do both of these things. This is my most recent attempt at such a shot.

The building in question is on the promenade at Blackpool, Lancashire, and is a converted 1930s "solarium". It has been changed from its original purpose as a place for people to sit in bright, leafy surroundings on dull or wet days, to a centre that showcases and promotes sustainable technology. It is called the "Solaris Centre", and is designed to be a "zero energy building" that generates more energy than it uses. Two wind turbines provide 6Kw each, and 60 sq m of solar cells can add another 18Kw in favourable conditions. Rainwater is used for toilet flushing, and other technologies help to keep energy use to a minimum. Exhibitions, a cafe and conference facilities complete the building.

My photograph shows a small part of the back of the building - a new corridor and roof light - that overlooks a planted area. I composed the picture to show the architecture in its setting, and because of the interesting combination of colours and textures. The purple flowers provide a useful foil against which the glazed grid of the building can be shown. But, the shot would not have occurred to me without the rectangles of blue, the orange walls with the solar cell shadows, and the yellow of the warning sign all being attractively grouped together. As a photograph to represent the building it's not very good because it doesn't show the characteristic features that the public usually see. But as an image in itself, or as one of a group to illustrate the building, I think it has some merit. I present the shot as it came out of the camera, with the only adjustment being the correction of the slightly converging verticals.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Abstract illusion

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Sometimes, when I'm looking around for an "abstractish" photograph to take, I come across a combination of shapes and colours that pleases me. And every now and then I find one that pleases AND surprises me. Both responses come from selecting a part of the surroundings, and in so doing, changing ones understanding of it. Blinds become repetitive patterns with zig-zags, a bottle of water reveals unseen forms and colours, a stack of plastic chairs becomes an organic form whilst metal chairs reveal a high-tech rhythm, and a section of tinted windows finds an elegance that it could never achieve as part of the whole lurid building. When you do this you get the sense of discovery that comes from finding the extraordinary in the commonplace.

I got that feeling the other day when taking the photograph I offer above. It wasn't the same feeling that I had when taking the shots noted earlier. This time it was principally surprise that I felt because the image I had recorded was so very hard to decipher! Part of it was clearly out of focus, and part of it was as sharp as could be. It was hard to work out what was near to the camera and what was most distant. I showed it to my wife and she couldn't work out what it was. "Is there a lot of rust in the image? Are there shadows?", she asked. Can you see what I photographed?

In fact, the shot shows a section of the seat of a curved, slatted, stainless steel bench. The brown stripes in the photograph are the out of focus concrete below the seat, and other stripes are the metal slats. The shadow of the back of the seat falls across the seat slats which themselves vary in colour according to the amount and angle of the light falling on them. I used a short zoom, to take the shot, and gave it a symmetry that only the shadows broke. A great shot - no. But an interesting illusion - yes, I think so.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Monday, July 03, 2006

Linguistic gymnastics

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"English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary", James D. Nicoll (1961- ), Canadian writer on computing

A recent email set me thinking about English words and the pleasure that is to be had from them. Ours is a mongrel language principally derived from German, Latin and French, with significant contributions from several other languages. There are 380 million native speakers, many more who have it as a second language, and it has become the de facto international language that everyone wants to learn.

Fluency and competency in any language is usually tested by oral and written examination. However, I've come up with a new test of proficiency in English. It is entirely oral, and the measure of competence is determined by how much you smile, laugh or roll about on the floor at the following "new definitions" of words, and the extent to which you can explain the humour in them! Many are from the BBC Radio 4 spoof panel game, "I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue", and others are by anonymous authors who have extended the idea. Take the test now:
  • psychopath - crazy paving
  • decease - to stop stopping
  • pallisade - what the Queen drinks
  • sentiment - the perfume he intended to buy
  • mistake - winner of a butchers' beauty competition
  • gross mistake - unlikely winner of a butchers' beauty competition
  • Hamlet - a baby pig
  • stalemate - your spouse
  • champagne - malingering
  • servile - a nasty knight
  • MacAdam - the first Scotsman
  • stucco - a hitherto unknown Marx Brother
  • gripe - what Australians make wine from
  • testicle - an exploratory tickle
I think that being sufficiently fluent to appreciate and explain the humour in these "new definitions" demonstrates quite a high level of understanding of English, and is a lot more fun than most of the tests I've taken. An added advantage (or perhaps it's a disadvantage) is that it would be hard to revise for this exam!

You might be wondering what all this has to do with a photograph of the conference centre stairway at Whalley Abbey, Lancashire. The answer is, not a lot! Except that the carved stone pine-cones on top of the stone newels are known by the architectural term, finials, a word that, for no good reason I can explain, makes me smile! I used a wide-angle lens, and a vertical composition for this shot. I liked the composition because the bright sunlight on the lower steps seemed to attract the eye, and from there the zig-zag of the stairs took the viewer through to the dark Victorian porch at top of the picture.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Will the music stop?

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Brass bands are a British tradition that is a long time dying. But die they will unless the bands can continue to recruit young players, and young people have a place and a reason to learn a brass band instrument.

The British brass band usually comprises cornets, flugelhorns, tenor horns, baritones, euphoniums, trombones, tubas and percussion. Most of the instruments play from the treble clef (with the exception of the bass trombone and percussion). This palette of instruments and way of playing is uniquely British, and ensures that parts can be covered when instruments are missing. Most brass bands originated at a place of work, an organisation or a town or village. Britain's best known brass ensemble, the Black Dyke Mills Band, started life as the band of Black Dyke Mills (a textile mill), at Queensbury, Bradford, in 1816. The Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band started up in 1881 in Calderdale, Yorkshire, and the Grimethorpe Colliery Band began in 1917 as a recreational activity for the miners of that particular Yorkshire coal pit. In Victorian times many towns and villages had a band that would play on the bandstand in the local park on Sundays, and at the church or town hall at other times. Such bands continue, in very much smaller numbers, today. Each year there are fewer. Sadly, most bandstands that were built for their performances now host music only occasionally, and standing in one you can faintly hear the ghosts of players past, filling the air with their characteristic music.

This bandstand on the central promenade at Blackpool, Lancashire, is usually filled with skateboarders who have made it their home. The steps and the paved open spaces all around offer interest and challenge for the young people, and the canopy provides shelter from the weather. I took this photograph at 9.00a.m. on a bright Sunday morning, when the skateboarders were still in bed and the promenade was only slowly coming to life. I was attracted by the interesting shape of the structure. However, the emptiness also appealed - it seemed to underline the lack of purpose that these bandstands have today. I placed the main shape to the left of the frame, to give the railings on the right a place in the composition. Black and white seemed both appropriate for the subject, and to accentuate the interesting shape.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Black and white in colour

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Many a driver on the A-road from Preston to Blackburn must have done a "double-take" as they passed Samlesbury Hall. Old timber-framed "black and white" buildings are characteristic of a number of English counties, particularly Cheshire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Kent: but you don't expect them in Lancashire! The midlands, southern and eastern counties have such buildings, largely because in the 1500s and 1600s they didn't have good, outcropping, building stone, but were well-wooded and consequently had skills in wood-working. The style was popular not just in England, but across a number of countries in mainland Europe. And, in the 1860s the style made a comeback through Richard Norman Shaw, John Douglas and other architects. Aspects of the style have remained in use through to the present day, though usually as "tack-on" half-timbering rather than in the use of timber for structural purposes.

The photograph shows a small part of Samlesbury Hall. Along with Rufford Old Hall it is one of the most northerly of the big timber-framed houses. It was begun in 1330, though little from that period remains. The hall itself was built around 1500 and the large wing at right angles to the hall, in about 1540. Various owners added to Samlesbury in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and a major restoration took place in 1835. Although the main structure comprises large posts, crucks and beams of oak, the infill is largely wattle and plaster. Moreover, stone and brick is used in a number of important places, most noticeably in the footings of the walls and in the chimneys. Some say that the characteristic black painted wood and white painted infill is a Victorian invention, and it's true that many such buildings do have untreated oak. But, whoever is responsible, it certainly gives these buildings an appearance that is both striking and pleasing.

I took this shot in the morning when the shadows were still deep. I decided to focus on a part of the building to show the wall pattern to good effect. In my composition I placed the door to the left of the image, and the bay to the right, with some leaves from an overhanging horse chestnut above. Together with the closely cropped lawn they frame the quite unusual quatrefoil patterns of this part of the building. The fact that these are in the shade doesn't matter because of the very strong contrast that is characteristic of these buildings.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen