Talad Noi

Talad Noi is one of the oldest and most photogenic parts of Bangkok. It's always a good location for a Sunday afternoon photo walk.

I've been working on a Lightroom preset which emulates the look of Kodachrome 25 and Kodachrome 64. It's a starting point for post-production rather than a one-click solution but I think it's getting close.

The Generosity of Bislam

 Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

I keep a 100 Indian Rupee banknote in my wallet. It's been there for years. As of yesterday, I'll be keeping a 100 Burmese Kyat note beside it too.

The notes are reminders of the generosity of strangers. Actually, they're more like mementos because generous strangers cross my path almost daily so token reminders really aren't necessary.

The 100 Rupee note is one I offered as payment to an Indian motor mechanic. Miles from the town of Pushkar in Rajasthan, my rented motorbike had seized-up, leaving me contemplating a hot, dusty and wearisome walk back to town, pushing an unwieldy and recalcitrant motorbike. However, in India, you're never alone for long. A helpful and apparently psychic group of people appeared over the sand dunes within minutes. Many hands helped wheel the bike towards a jumble of dwellings. I was offered hot, sweet chai and after taking portraits for an hour whilst the local mechanic repaired the broken bike chain, he dusted it down and proudly offered it back, fixed and ready to ride.

I asked, "How much?" He shook his head. I offered a handful of 1,000 rupee notes, happy for him to take whatever he wanted. His adjustable spanner and expertise had saved me an enormous amount of trouble. He beamed a toothless smile, wobbled his head in that indecipherable Indian way and declined. No amount of cajoling would persuade him that payment should change hands.

At the very least, I would pay for the chai that we and his neighbours had drunk whilst he worked on my bike. But no. He wouldn't dream of it. So my final offer, a 100 rupee note, proffered more in hope than in expectation, has remained in my wallet ever since.

There are so many stories of tourists being scammed, online forums filled with complaints and warnings of touts and dangers, annoyances and pitfalls. All of which may well be accurate. But my experience over the last thirty or so years travelling to over sixty countries doesn't really meet with that picture of the world as a dangerous place. There are dangers, of course, and one shouldn't ignore or minimise those but they are relatively few and far between. I'm more likely to be invited into somebody's home and offered tea than I am to be the victim of an artful scam. I find that people are as interested in me as I am in them and that an exchange of information about where we are from, who is in our family, whether we are married and what the weather is like at home is sufficient payment if it's offered genuinely and accompanied by a smile.

People who travel widely, regularly and unassumingly will usually report similar experiences. From South America to South-East Asia and at all points North, East, South and West, I've been welcomed and treated with generous hospitality by people who have much less to offer than I.

This happens regularly. It happened to me yesterday. Documenting the railway that circles Yangon, I was greeted with friendly smiles, as is always the case. Even in Myanmar, with its curious political history, there's little evidence of suspicion or a reluctance to engage.

After an early-morning departure and an hour on the train (which, if I'm honest, saw me dozing more than photographing), I hopped off the train on to a platform at a small village north of Yangon, where I photographed a market set up along the tracks.

A young man selling fish introduced himself as Bislam. We chatted as best we could with a combined shared vocabulary of about nine words. I took some photos. I gestured towards the sun, indicating that it was very hot, knowing that my mime for "I'm melting" usually prompts a laugh, which it did.

I went back to photographing. Two minutes later, Bislam approached me again and held out a one-litre bottle of mineral water, which he'd purchased from a nearby vendor and for which I was especially grateful. I don't always remember to stay hydrated.

"Thank you. How much?", I asked. 

He smiled. "No problem."

Knowing the usual price, I fished a note from my wallet and held it out, "100 Kyat?"

He smiled more broadly. "No problem." He walked back to the railway line and squatted beside the fish he was selling.

He didn't try to profit. He didn't ask for 500 or 1,000 Kyat although I would have happily paid that. He didn't ask for anything at all. He didn't follow me. He didn't try to scam me, steal from me, take advantage of me or do anything beyond buying me a bottle of water. That may not seem like a lot but to put it in the context of Myanmar's often bewildering economics, a three-hour train journey costs 500 Kyat and one of the fish he was selling costs a lot less. A 100 Kyat bottle of water is not insignificant. I've learned that the joy of giving is often worth more than the financial cost to people who have little material wealth. I've also learned to accept it with good grace and not to try and force the issue of payment. 

And so the 100 Kyat note will remain in my wallet as a memento of that simple exchange. In a world which might seem to increasingly reward cynicism and suspicion, I find these simple acts of generosity to be quite moving.

No doubt there are bigger and better brains than mine at work in the political boardrooms where the UK Independence Party plan their anti-immigration manifesto. Perhaps the Australian plan to deny immigrants entry to that vast, sprawling country and send them instead to under-developed, poorly-resourced Cambodia is a plan with a genius too advanced for me to comprehend. Yet I can't help wondering if the politicians who dream up these parochial schemes might benefit from an hour wandering along the railway tracks of Yangon or the dusty back roads of Rajasthan. Perhaps Bislam, taking a break from selling fish to offer them a bottle of precious water, might prompt them to consider whether a willingness to share might not make all of us wealthier in the long run.

Who knows? To steal and alter a quote by Steve McCurry, If I was going to be something, I'd probably be a politician. I'm just a photographer. So here are some photos of Bislam instead.

William Albert Allard - Beyond the Frame Workshop

BEYOND THE FRAME PHOTOGRAPHY WORKSHOP
WITH WILLIAM ALBERT ALLARD

23rd to 28th JANUARY, 2015

Bangkok, Thailand

 

A recent edition of The Telegraph carried an article reporting that Italian scientists have been studying a phenomenon known as Stendhal Syndrome. It's said that visitors to the Italian city of Florence can be so overwhelmed by the beauty of the artwork that they "swoon".

"Staff at Florence's Santa Maria Nuova hospital are accustomed to dealing with tourists suffering from dizzy spells and disorientation after admiring the statue of David".

Don't you just love that? The art in Florence is so abundant and gorgeous that medical staff are regularly caring for people made dizzy by the very sight of it.

I'm only surprised that Italian scientists are actually studying the phenomenon. I would have thought it more likely for Italians to be studying the responses of visitors who do not swoon at the sight of Michelangelo's "David".

What is about art that can affect our sensibilities so profoundly? Art does not sustain or protect our physical selves. Music will not clothe us. Paintings cannot provide shelter (unless you have a lot of sturdy frames). Admiring Michelangelo's statue will not feed our bellies. Yet we respond to great art with our most fundamental instincts and emotions. Soon after we have found sources of food, water and shelter, we seek art. We need art. Perhaps where food and water can sustain us and shelter protects us, art connects us.

Florence, which can boast a greater concentration of evocative art than anywhere else on the planet, is the visual equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet. Is it a surprise that visitors require medical attention after feasting to the point of bursting? 

Girls Running Home

My guess is that most of us have experienced bouts of Stendhal Syndrome when coming face-to-face with great art. It happens to me all the time. I remember unwrapping a Christmas gift from my good friends, Sabrina Henry and Ray Ketcham, a couple of years ago and revealing a copy of William Albert Allard's impressively hefty "Five Decades" retrospective book. I stood at the dining table and leafed through the pages, anticipating some undisturbed free time ahead when I'd be able to really concentrate on the images. I recall very clearly the moment I first saw the image below, which still induces a sense of dizzying admiration every time I see it.

 

Girls Running Home. Béhorléguy, France, 1967

 

The photograph doesn’t show an event of historical significance, it’s not a portrait of a famous person, it doesn’t document a disaster, it’s not a photograph of a Kennedy or Monroe. It wasn’t taken in Vietnam or Beirut and it doesn’t show a rare natural phenomenon. It’s a photograph taken on what appears to be a sombre afternoon on a country lane in rural France. Not, you might think, a place where such a memorable image might be made.

The photograph shows two girls, running along a lane towards a village in the distance. The lane curves gently from the bottom-left corner of the frame, disappearing from view as it rounds a corner towards buildings. A hint of a mountain is visible beyond the village and the hills form a background against which one white building is highlighted.

Much of the photograph is monochromatic, there’s a hint of muddy red in the distant rooftops but, otherwise, it’s an image of largely dark and subdued greens and browns.

But there, in the centre of the frame, no larger than the end of your thumb, is a splash of sunshine yellow and two spots of vibrant red. A girl’s yellow jacket and red shoes. Her arms are outstretched and her feet have lifted from the ground and… in the words of the photographer…

“…the two girls were not running, they weren’t skipping; they were weightless, floating in the air, as if forever suspended in grace and innocence.”

It takes a fraction of a second for your eye to fall upon the yellow jacket in the centre of the frame and a fraction more before you realise that the girls are “floating, weightless”. That time is enough to leave you feeling that you’ve discovered a secret treasure in the image. It’s not just a photograph of a rural scene, it’s not simply a road and village at dusk, it’s indisputable evidence of magic! The magic of childhood innocence and liberty. In the moment we realise that the girls are floating, we are children once again. We know that childhood sense of believing that we can fly. We can recall that lightness of being. Perhaps it is because we now inhabit bodies which are weightier, fully grown, and because we possess minds which tell us that it is impossible to leap up and fly that we might feel a sense of affectionate, nostalgic longing when we look at that photograph.

On one sombre afternoon in 1967, near a village in rural France, two girls running towards their home were momentarily weightless. And William Albert Allard captured that scene.

As you look more carefully at the image, you might begin to wonder about the perspective. The photographer appears to be looking down upon the scene. To capture the two girls, the lane and the village from that angle, he must surely have been fifteen or twenty feet above the road. The only logical explanation is that he too was floating. Sure, some might suggest that he could have been standing on a rock or on a bridge or a gate or on the top of a double-decker bus… But those are disappointingly practical and unromantic notions.

How might we also make such a beautiful image? If you’ve ever picked up a camera and tried to take a “great” photograph, you’ll know that the results can sometimes be disappointing. There can be a gulf between what your eyes saw, what your mind envisaged and what the resulting photograph shows. I’ve taught photography for many years and it’s very common during review and critique sessions to hear students eagerly providing a commentary on the circumstances surrounding their image-making. “Well, the light was much more golden than that”, or “A second before I took this, he was laughing”, or “It doesn’t look anything like I remember”. We are all familiar with that discrepancy between the final image and the scene as we recall it in our mind’s eye. Nevertheless, we continue to pick up our cameras in the hope that we might successfully capture something which conveys a moment as we saw it.

Sometimes, if we're lucky, we might find ourselves looking through the viewfinder and feeling certain that we have found the most evocative light, organised the perfect composition, waited patiently for the decisive moment and… click… our senses come together in that instant and we firmly believe that we’ve captured something truly memorable. In that moment, when all the ingredients conspire in a fraction of a second, we might feel giddy, weightless. I think that’s what happened to William Albert Allard on that country lane in France in 1967. I believe that he looked through the viewfinder, composed the scene, waited for the girls to run into the perfect spot and, realising that he was about to capture an image of magical beauty, simply lifted from the ground to float above the earth, weightless.

I accept it’s a fanciful notion but I’m an artist so fanciful notions are in my job description.

Great art connects us. It reveals our humanity, illustrates our vulnerabilities, describes our aspirations and defines the human condition. Great artists, it must follow, are those who are most willing to reveal their humanity, showing us their vulnerabilities, sharing their aspirations and wearing their hearts firmly and proudly upon their sleeves. When you look at the work of William Albert Allard, you quickly realise that you are not only looking at photographs of this place or that place, this person or that person, you are seeing a reflection of the artist himself and Allard's passion is soaked deeply into every image.

Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to attend a photography festival in Cortona, Italy, which included three memorable days with William Albert Allard. Perhaps it was the heady infusion of medieval architecture, golden light and a rather perky lunchtime Chianti but when I suggested to him that we ought to offer a photography workshop in Bangkok, he was immediately and unreservedly enthusiastic. I'm delighted, therefore, to announce our Beyond the Frame Photography Workshop with William Albert Allard.

You want to know the secret of making great images? It's got very little to do with cameras or lenses. It has even less to do with apertures or shutter speeds, focal lengths or megapixels. It has everything to do with your approach, your integrity, your determination, patience and your authenticity. Great images are a product of undiluted passion.

That is why we're calling this workshop the "Beyond the Frame Photo Workshop". Participants will be helped with the technical aspects, for sure, but, more than that, we will be exploring what it really means to be a photographer. We will be looking at what happens behind the scenes when we prepare, research and plan. We will examine intentions and see how our expectations can influence the outcome. We aim to look at much more than the final result, hence, Beyond the Frame.

It was noticeable that in my three days with William Albert Allard, we did not discuss cameras or lenses even once. We did not compare notes about apertures or metering modes. We walked into Cortona and we looked, observed, waited and, eventually, photographed. When we paused for lunch or dinner, we talked about light, texture and form. We shared our experiences, talked about people we'd met, places we'd visited and the photographs that got away. We talked about being present, about patiently waiting and about living inside the story. I hope that we will have an opportunity to share similar conversations in even greater depth in Bangkok next year.

Beyond the Frame Photo Workshop

William Albert Allard has been a National Geographic photographer for over fifty years. I'm not about to find any more eloquent words about the man and his work than these:

"Mention the name Bill Allard and images that are indelibly inscribed on my memory instantly appear in the foreground of my mind. And so do words - soulful, idyllic, muscular, elegiac, textural, human, authentic. Allard is more than a master of his medium, he is what he photographs."

James Nachtwey, Photojournalist

"He shows us the potent magic of living, the luminous mystery of the transitory, and all with a deftness and compassion unique to his vision"

Sally Mann, Photographer

"How would I define William Albert Allard? He is a master of content, color, light; a poet; and a great artist"

Mary Ellen Mark


I hope that you will be able to join us in Bangkok for our Beyond the Frame Photography Workshop next year for what promises to be a memorable learning and sharing experience.

Places will be limited so please register early.

 

Mekong Manicure Women

 

Every evening, young women on bicycles arrive on the banks of the Mekong river in Vientiane. The women offer a portable manicure service to passers-by. Their baskets each contain a nailbrush, soap and nail clippers.

As the sun begins to sink towards the Mekong river and before the riverbank becomes busy with joggers and pedestrians, the women take time to chat with each other.

Canon EOS 5D MKIII with 50mm f/1.2 lens
1/8000th of a second at f/2.8 at ISO100

 

Chinese Opera

This week sees the celebration of the Vegetarian Festival in Thailand and, in various different forms, across South-East Asia. Bangkok's Chinatown is host to many events, including several Chinese Operas. I visited one on the first day of the festival.

The Photographer's Post-Production

My new Adobe Lightroom instruction package, the Photographer's Post-Production is now available to download. The package includes:

  • 20 Video Tutorials (3+ hours)
  • 15 original RAW files so you can work along with the videos
  • Companion e-book containing image "recipes"
  • Lightroom Catalogue

This package follows-on from the popular Photographer's Workflow and the two together offer a pretty comprehensive digital imaging workflow. The brief introduction videos below will give you an idea of what's included.

The complete package is available for $69.

The companion e-book, "The Photographer's Workflow", which includes video tutorials and many Lightroom workflow and development presets is only $30 so you can download both guides together, providing a comprehensive and practical guide to image management in Adobe Lightroom, from Import to Export, for $99.

Cortona #3 - The spaces in-between

 

Last night I photographed shapes created as the sun cast angular shadows onto Cortona's medieval buildings. This evening, by way of literal and figurative contrast, I've switched my attention to the spaces in-between.

We tend to photograph "things". This thing and that thing demand our attention and become obvious subjects for our photographs. We're always pointing our cameras at "things". Sometimes, however, the space around something can be as interesting as the thing itself.

In music, the dramatic pauses which build anticipation contribute as much to the atmosphere of a piece as the notes played. There's even a word for it. It's called a "Fermata" or, in Italian, a "Corona". It's often used to indicate where the musician would take a breath. So, pleasingly, I've been photographing visual coronas in Cortona. The Cortona coronas, if you prefer.

In great speeches, the masterful orator knows that careful measurement of the gaps between words can build tension and focus the audience's attention. Would "I have a dream" be quite so memorable without the subsequent pause? Would "Ask not what your country can do for you..." be so familiar to us today if it had run quickly into the words which followed.

Moments of comfortable silence between close friends can speak volumes. Those quiet alleyways between two people will tell you more about their relationship than the tangible words and gestures they share. If you're not convinced, go and see a Harold Pinter play and notice how the pauses between dialogue are often where the real drama takes place.

So, here's a celebration of spaces. A nod in the direction of the pause.

The gap.

The silence.

 

Cortona #2

Walking around Cortona's narrow, medieval streets quickly becomes an exercise in creative composition as the sun aligns itself between the tall buildings. Angular, abstract shapes are created by the strong shadows, like pieces of a giant puzzle. The light is constantly changing the apparent shape of the architecture, providing a slowly shifting light show from dawn to dusk.

It's the sort of place where a photographer or a painter or anybody with an appreciation of light would enjoy just sitting and watching. Perhaps that's why there are so many bars and cafes with al-fresco tables. It's not only because dining outside is generally more pleasant, it's also because nobody would want to be indoors when the sun is breathing life into the walls outside in such an extraordinary way.

Cortona #1

 

Sergio, the manager of my hotel in Cortona, was waiting at the railway station to greet me off my train from Rome. What a friendly way to begin a trip. When we reached the car park, a beautiful young woman was waiting in the passenger seat of his Alfa Romeo. A pink flower loosely held her long, auburn hair behind one ear and she was holding a bunch of freshly-picked lavender.

"Lavender", I declared, exhibiting the full range of my horticultural knowledge in a single word, "how lovely". I thought there would be some sort of explanation for the woman's presence, if not for the lavender, but Sergio offered none and neither did his glamorous friend. He was concentrating on driving like an Italian (at full throttle and with little caution) through the narrow, cobbled streets of old Cortona and she was concentrating on looking like a young Audrey Hepburn, which, now I think about it, were tasks which demanded little effort or concentration from either of them.

This is Italy where life can often seem quite effortless and explanations are not required. A beautiful woman clutching freshly-picked lavender in your passenger seat is perfectly normal. One might as well wonder why the car has doors or tyres.

Sergio drove like he was challenging for the lead on the final lap of the Monza Grand Prix, employing the brakes only when needing to reach out of the window long enough to shake hands and compliment a passing friend. "Hey, Fabio, I saw your wife this morning, she looks great in that red dress. Let's meet for dinner". By the time we'd reached the hotel, Sergio had made dinner plans with half of Cortona. I suspect the other half would just turn up anyway.

 
 

I had just enough time to get out and catch some pockets of light in Cortona as the sun began its lingering descent. I'm used to the Asian sunset, where day turns to night so rapidly that you might miss it if you blink the sweat out of your eyes, so it was a pleasure to be reminded how generous the Italian sun is with its approach to setting. I've decided that the Italian sunset is perfectly timed to allow for the enjoyment of a bottle of fine Chianti - or two, if you're with a friend. And, in Italy, you're never alone for long if you have a bottle of fine Chianti - or a bunch of freshly-picked lavender.

 
 

I'm in Cortona for a few days for the "Cortona On The Move" Photography Festival.