Category Archives: People

Talking about portraiture with Patricia Coakley

A couple of weeks ago I was in the U.S. and I visited fellow blogger Pat Coakley, at her home. As we shot the breeze I brought up the subject of  portaiture photography and the sorts of images people put up of themselves on their blogs.

I mentioned that I find self selected portraits fascinating because they give such an interesting insight into the mindset of of the sitter. Often I see photos of female bloggers that to my mind show a preoccupation with their self image of themselves as sex objects rather than humans that happen to be female. A similar thing goes for many men with the added conceit that conveys an attempt to look either seriously “deep” or macho.

Now I know it’s human nature to feel exposed when displaying a photo of oneself and it takes a fair amount of courage to let down our defences and allow someone else the try and show a little more about ourselves to others. I’ve often thought that the higher the defences that a person presents, the weaker and more vulnerable they feel. As I’ve grown older, I’ve noticed that the people who “let it all hang out” are usually very brave confident people (either that or drunk!) and I’ve admired them for it.

I hold the advertising industry largely responsible for the mass negative self-consciousness I see exhibited in western society. Our self image is constantly under attack by businesses that want us to feel that we need to buy their products to feel better about ourselves. Like some kind of insidious water torture, the steady dripping of corrosive advertising messages is eroding away many of the fragile positive attitudes we may have of ourselves, to the point that a lot of us feel we can’t be photographed, “warts and all”. As a society we have been brainwashed into thinking that everyone else in our society has to find us sexually alluring at all times. The ad industry would has us believe that we are constantly on some kind meat market catwalk with the spotlight on us, and the rest of the society we live with is the audience of buyers.  

Crazy making stuff.

As I was ranting on along these lines, Pat asked me what sort of portraits did I think people should put on their blogs. My answer was, “a character portrait”.

By a character portrait, I mean a portrait that gives some kind of insight into the character of the sitter, rather than a fruitless (and to my mind, an excruciatingly embarrassing) attempt to cover-up and compensate for their ad industry created insecurities.

To my reply Pat said something along the lines of, “well then, take a photo of me to show what you mean”

So without allowing Pat to make any adjustments to herself I grabbed my camera and took a few shots right where we were sitting at the dining table.

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I always like taking portraits of people looking straight back at me. I’m of the opinion that it’s almost impossible to hide on one’s face, what is going on internally in one’s mind. Having a portrait is quite confronting for most of us and I love how when people look down my lens back at me there is usually a questioning openness in their expressions.

Pat gave me a look that appeared on the surface to be a mixture of defiance and vulnerability that intimated to me, “I’m trusting you here”.

Needless to say, I love the photos I took of Pat (even though the depth of field is a bit shallow) because they show her the way how I see her (it’s always going to be a subjective projection from my point of view). In the few days that I spent with Pat I received the impression that I was in the presence of an erudite and compassionate being.

The photo above is all eyes and mouth and in the kindest way I feel that sums up Pat. The eyes are always observing behaviour and soaking up beauty, while the mouth is often transmitting wisdom and insight.

“Strokkur” the geyser. Iceland. 2011

Today we went driving into the mountains north east of Reykjavíc, up towards the Langjökull glacier. We knew we’d be passing the home of the eponymous “Geysir” (the first geyser known to Europeans). We also knew it would be a total tourist trap and that Geysir only erupts when there is seismic activity, which isn’t right now, but we thought we may as well go and see it.

Yep the place had the obligatory store with very over priced tourist stuff in it, and there were all sorts of tour groups there, just like we expected. So it was with an unwilling heart I went to look at Strokkur, the only geyser that regularly blows a column of water into the air.

As I hung  around with all the other mooks with my camera at the ready, waiting as the minutes crawled by I kept thinking to myself, “why am I bothering with this?”

I have to admit that as I watched the water in the geyser well up and down for about fifteen minutes, I could feel the tension of expectation mount inside me. Then all of a sudden the water wells a little higher than before and with a gushing blast a large tower of steaming hot water shot into space. It was so violent, powerful and fast that everybody, including me jumped.

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One moment I’m a jaded piece of meat that couldn’t care less, the next I’m an excited little kid who can’t wait for the geyser to go off again.

I watched Strokkur do its thing three more times and eventually had to be dragged away from it by my wife.

Aboard some Baltic Ferries with Engogirl and Razzbuffnik. 2011

Travel in Scandinavia quite often involves ferry trips. The ferries range in size from small ones that only take about twenty vehicles across fjords right up to ships the size of cruise liners that cross the Baltic Sea from one country to another.

This first image was taken by Engogirl on the overnight ferry from Helsinki to Stockholm and it shows me in the foreground with some excited Russians next to me.

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What struck me about this shot, and why I like it so much is that it shows such a striking difference in attitude between me and the little boy. I’m constantly thinking about what’s going on around me and my expression shows this. On the other hand the little boy’s face is full of wonder.

I often think about how as we go through life we gather information and understanding of the world around us. When we start off on our life’s journey we are ignorant, full of awe and wonder, but as we get older and understand more, we see the complexities before us and using the knowledge we have gathered, try to decipher it.

This next image is of Engogirl on the three hour Ferry trip from Stockholm to Gotland.

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Once a ship leaves it’s harbour and is out at sea there isn’t much to do or see, other than the watery horizon in every direction, so most people head off to the various restaurants or snack bars to make their purchases so that they can eat and drink their way through their voyage. Since there isn’t that much to look at (other than the other passengers), Engogirl and I sometimes listen to music. As we were listening to our music, the woman next to Engogirl kept looking out the window with a funny expression on her face, so I took a picture of them both.

The great thing about using such a wide angle lens (10mm) as mine is that people off to one side don’t realise that you’re taking photos of them.

The smallest cafe in Norway. Vinstad, Moskenesøy, Lofoten Islands, Norway. 2011

Amanda who is one of the last two people who still lives in Vinstad year round, runs what she calls the “smallest cafe in Norway” in a schoolhouse that is no longer used.

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Vinstad can only be reached by a short ferry ride from Reine and it’s the starting point of a short hike to Bunes beach.

Amanda makes a little money selling drinks and fresh made waffles to the hikers who come through. After our hike, as we waited for the ferry to come we had some waffles and a chat with Amanda. She told us how her family had been in the area for centuries but the community had been shrinking for decades now with people moving away to find work.

As we talked I mentioned that I like to go to places that are bit of the beaten track. Amanda in reply said, “a lot of people who come here say that”, and then she pointed out that 12,000 people a year come over on the ferry to Vindstad!

Not fish. Å, Moskenes, The Lofoten Islands, Norway. 2011

Å is a tiny little town that seems to have closed because we arrived few days out of “the season”. The only place we could get a coffee was at an old traditional bakery.
After being in Norway for the last two weeks, the more of Norwegian I hear the more it’s starting to sound a little like English and I have started to feel that I can catch little snatches of what is being said around me and understand some of it. As I was helping myself to some coffee at the counter in the bakery I could hear some Norwegian guys ask the baker, in Norwegian, where she was from and I heard her answer back in Norwegian that she was from Poland.

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When the guys left I asked the Baker in English (just about everyone here speaks English) how a Polish person ended up in Å of all places. The baker was surprised that I knew she was from Poland and after a short interrogation from her we quickly got into a discussion about all sorts of things. 

I asked what the bread-like cinnamon rolls were called in Norwegian and she told me but said that was the local fisherman’s dialect for them and then went on to give me a bunch of other names that basically meant things like, spice roll, spice snails, cinnamon spirals etc. From this topic we moved onto the people of the Lofoten Islands and the way how they speak and what issues affect their dialect.

It turns out that the baker is an historian and we got talking about how fixated the Lofoten Islanders were on cod (torsk in Norwegian) to the point that when a Lofoten Islander says the word “fish (fiske in Norwegian)”, they are referring to cod and when they speak about other fish they mention them by their specific name.

 After hearing this, I suggested that perhaps we could simplify the naming of the little cinnamon rolls by calling them “ikke fiske” (not fish)!

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What a difference a day makes. Mount Dalsnibba, Strand, Norway. 2011

The top of Dalsnibba (about 1500 meters or 4500ft) is reached by a toll road run by the locals and it is well known for the views from the top…. if the weather is good. The first time we went there the summit was completely covered in very dense fog (cloud, really considering we were so high), but the tour buses kept coming and the hapless and ill prepared punters spilled out into the mist to wonder what they were doing there as there was very little to see, other than little cairns of rocks piled up by thousands of other visitors.

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The woman in the picture above was standing, shivering in the cold (2 degrees C or just above freezing) while her male companion gave her directions as he took photos of her. When the photos had been taken, the woman bent down and picked up a rock and threw it quite hard at the guy with the camera, and hit him with a rather loud WHOMP! One couldn’t help but think she was nonplussed with being there.

The next day we (Engogirl and I) went back to the Dalsnibba with the hope of getting a better view.

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Is Geiranger the best travel destination in Scandinavia? Norway. 2011

It’s a silly question I know, but I raise it because just about every reference to Geiranger I’ve come across on the net has things like ” voted best travel destination in Scandinavia by Lonely Planet” or “Geiranger is the crown jewels of the fjords”, etc, writen in them.

There is no doubt about it, Greiranger and the surrounding area is jaw-droppingly beautiful…… that’s if the weather is good. It would be very easy to go to Geiranger and not see much except for rain and clouds, but when the clouds lift it’s hard to imagine many places in the world that would be more spectacular.

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I find it interesting that we as humans like to create hierarchies. The web is full of silly lists like “10 most beautiful places to wake up in” (Lonely Planet isn’t what it used to be and has much to answer for nowadays). Such lists tend to be written about places which recieve the most visitors, not necessarily the “best” (whatever that would actually mean and how could it be measured?). Luckily there are still quite a few very beautiful places left that are visited by so few outsiders that any publicity in their direction gets lost in the noise about the more well know places.

Mercifully, places like Geiranger which are so well known and crawling with tourists (like me)  are truly beautiful and seem to be able to withstand the influx of its many admirers. As for the other little gems that haven’t attracted the world’s attention, let’s hope Lonely Planet never hears about them.

Rundetaarn, Copenhagen, Denmark. 2011

Built between 1637 and 1642, the Rundetaarn (Round Tower in English) is Europe’s oldest functioning observatory.

Spiral towers are for running in!

Such facts matter little to the many children who had a swell time running up (I want to know what they were on!) and down the 200 metre (just over 200 yards) spiral ramp that gives access to the roof. Much like the monkeys that bound over the rocks of fallen temples in Asia, children give no thought to what they are passing over, enjoying instead the pure physicality of what they are doing. Of course there’s nothing wrong with such ignorant bliss, but I do feel that the older I get, the more I learn and the more I learn the more I get out of whatever I’m doing.

Paddy Palin once said something along the lines of, “if you know the names of a few trees the bush is no longer just bush”.