Category Archives: Phenomena

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.

So far I’m impressed, just going from the airport to the hotel! Reykjavík, Iceland. 2011

For years I’ve been an avid reader of Icelandic sagas, and for that reason I’ve wanted to go to Iceland for a long time. Over the years I’ve noticed that when I hype myself up with expectations over a long period of time, I’m invariably disappointed. So it has been with a certain amount of dread that I’ve been facing the prospect of actually setting foot in Iceland.

As soon as I landed at Keflavik international airport I noticed the colour of the light and how lush and saturated everything looked. As I drove into Reykjavík I was struck by how utterly alien the landscape looked. All new geology caused by volcanic activity, no trees in amongst the rocks, just tiny little heath and lichen. I got such a shock when I stepped out of the car to take this picture.

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Although the ground is obviously very rocky, the rocks are covered in such think lichen that it is like walking on the softest and most luxurious shag carpet that you could possibly dream of.

After we spent about half an hour marvelling at the amazing landscape we got back in the car and within about ten minutes I saw a small tornado off in the distance.

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Although I’ve been through areas within an hour of one passing through the countryside and a small town in Ontario, Canada years ago, and have seen close up the destruction they cause, I’ve never seen one actually happen. More amazement!

After boggling on the tornado until it petered out, we made our way to the accommodation that we booked (reykjavik4you) and were blown away by how nice it is! I’m not kidding, this place it as good as it’s website says it is. Here’s a picture of the lounge area of our room.

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Spa bath, DVD player with free movies, flat screen TV, hi speed internet, kitchen plus a great bakery just across the road and it’s located in the middle of town!

As soon as we dumped our bags we went for a stroll downtown. With a population of about 120,000, Reykjavík is not a huge city, but it has tremendous heart. The town is just abuzz with an energy that I haven’t seen anywhere else that I’ve been to in Europe. For me there is a real sense of Reykjavík being a “happening place”, and in the short time I’ve been here, I’m already kicking myself we spent so much time in Finland and we didn’t spend it here instead!

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So far, so good (he says, tempting the gods).

Uggarde Rohr and Gålrum Skeppssättningar. Gotland, Sweden. 2011

Much of the sightseeing in Gotland involves looking at things to do with burials. Anything from gigantic bronze age cairns (rojr) to iron age stone ship burial (skeppssättningar) sites onto medieval and later graveyards with inscribed memorials.

Whenever I look at graveyards of any kind I’m reminded of a quatrain from the The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

The Worldly Hope men set their Hearts upon
Turns Ashes–or it prospers; and anon,
Like Snow upon the Desert’s dusty Face,
Lighting a little hour or two–is gone.

Of late I’ve been thinking about the transitory nature of memorials. In most relatively modern graveyards the gravestones have lost their inscriptions within 350 years. Even deeply inscribed medieval grave markers are usually are an unreadable mess if they’re left out to the elements for more than a measly 500 or 600 years. As a matter of fact, it seems to me that the more modern the tombstone, the shorter the time it will last.

Sandstone and marble are crap when it comes to withstanding the rigours of time and many headstones made of these materials only remain legible for about 150 years. Inscriptions hardly last any longer on granite unless they are on polished stones. I’ve noticed that roughly hewn granite breaks down faster than the polished version. Perhaps it has something to do with the mosses and lichens getting a foothold in the rougher textured stone and this helps the stone erode faster. Most of the cast iron memorials that were popular in the mid 19th century usually lie broken and rusted, as though in mocking mute witness to the fleeting nature of what we think of as the better design brought about by modern technology.

To my mind if you want to construct a memorial that will last a long time it would be expedient to start thinking like a bronze age chieftain. Make an arrangement with your people to bring some really big rocks along to your funeral and pile them up into a huge cairn like the one at Uggare in Gotland.

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Uggarde rojr was made anywhere between 1500BC to 500BC and it is 45 metres across (about 150 feet) by 8 meters high (about 25 feet) and was constructed by piling rocks that are a heavy load for just about any man and many would’ve a needed a few people to lift them. The really amazing thing is that Uggarde rojr is still here. It’s just so big and the stones are so heavy no one has bothered to mess with it.

Now I know that most of us don’t have so many friends or the power to compel others to erect such large and lasting memorials to us, so another kind of enduring memorial might be of some use to those of us with more modest means.

The skeppssättningar or stone ship burial is another type of memorial that has withstood the test of time. Made during the iron age  (from about 500BC to 400AD in northern Europe) in the outline of a boat with large stones that would need many people to move, stone ship burials range in size from a few metres long right up to a very egotistical 170 metres (about 500 feet) in length.

I think that a smaller skeppssättningar would be within the means of most of us. A few grand spent at a landscape supply, the rental of a small crane, an afternoon’s work of some capable friends and I think that most of us could get a durable memorial made to remind people in the future of the great person interred below. A few long lasting grave goods (pottery is always good) should also be added with the corpse so as to give the grave some interest to archaeologists in the future.

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The only thing that remains is some sort of inscription.

This would be the tricky and expensive part, but I think a deeply laser etched account of the life of the person interred, on a thick sheet (5mm or about 1/4 “) of stainless steel that has been hammered around the biggest stone (don’t bolt it into the stone because the expansion and contraction of  bolts will eventually help break down the stone) at the “bow” should do the trick.

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.

A safety moment by Engogirl from the Vasamuseet in Stockholm, Sweden. 2011

My wife (Engogirl) is an engineer who works as a senior consultant in computational analysis. Engogirl tends to take photos of things that stimulate her thoughts rather than eye candy like me.  Below is is an e-mail that Engogirl sent to her co-wokers in Sydney.

 

Today’s safety moment comes to you from the Vasamuseet in Stockholm, Sweden.  This museum houses the 69m long warship ‘Vasa’, which was built for King Gustav II Adolf from 1626 to 1628, and was one of the most heavily armed warships of its time.

The attached photos show the actual warship viewed from the front port side,

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and a 1:10 scale model viewed from the stern.

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Ten minutes into the Vasa’s maiden voyage in 1628, a light breeze blew as the ship emerged from the lee of the city.  The sails filled, and the ship heeled suddenly to its port side, leaning so far over that water entered the open gun ports.  This caused the ship to further destabilise, and it quickly sank to the bottom of the harbour in 32m of water, with only the tops of the masts left showing.  There it stayed until 1961, when it was salvaged and found to be almost entirely intact.  The ship is now housed in the Vasamuseet. Of the estimated 150 people on board when it sank, at least 30 are thought to have perished.

So why did the ship sink?  Basically it was top-heavy.  When the ship heeled, the centre of gravity was so high that the result was an unstable load condition.  The heavy guns were too high above the waterline, too far from the ship centreline, and there was too little ballast in the hold below the waterline to lower the centre of gravity and provide a restoring moment.  This was further exacerbated by the gun ports being left open on the maiden voyage – contrary to usual practice.

What lessons can be learned?

1. Letting the client dictate the design as well as the function

The King had ordered the ship to be constructed with specific dimensions, and two gun decks with 48 heavy 24 pound cannons.  He ordered and approved the designs, but was not a shipbuilder.

2. Loss of key personnel

In the 1600s ships were built without any drawings.  The shipwrights used various rules of thumb to determine the measurements.  The Dutch shipwright Henrik Hybertsson was commissioned to build the warship, but he fell ill one year into the job, and died in the spring of 1627.  The ship was completed by his assistant, Henrik Jacobsson.  During the inquest following the sinking, Jacobsson claimed he just followed the instructions of Hybertsson.

3. Ignoring the results of preliminary testing

The ship’s captain ordered some heeling tests to be carried out before the ship was completed.  The hull was floated and thirty men ran back and forth across the upper deck to start the ship rolling, and it was found to be so unstable that the test was stopped early for fear that the ship would capsize.  Despite this result, the construction continued as it was behind schedule and the King was applying extreme pressure for the ship to be completed.

4. Relying on God to save you

Following the heeling tests, the captain apparently commented that he would trust in God to keep the ship afloat.  Unfortunately, such trust was apparently misplaced.

The good news is that the high levels of pollution in Stockholm harbour resulted in excellent preservation of the timbers, ropes and even the sails, and the Vasa now offers a fascinating insight into naval techniques of 17th century Sweden.

Cheers,

Engogirl

Before and after in Borgund, Sogn og Fjordane, Norway. 2011

I find the old stave churches in Norway fascinating and I was saddened when I read that many were pulled down in the 17th and 18th centuries as communities became financially able to build what they thought was better. As a matter of fact most of the stave churches that are left standing, are in what used to be the poorest areas of Norway.

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The stave church in Borgund (built at the end of the 12th century) is one of the most spectacular examples left, but after seeing the dark, cramped and cold interior it’s not hard to understand why the locals, who had to use such churches, didn’t feel so sentimentally attached to keeping them, and  built new churches as soon as they could afford to do so.

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Whilst the exteriors of the new churches (such as the one at Borgund built in 1866 right next to the old church) aren’t as fantastically striking as the stave churches, their interiors that may be considered by some to still be a bit Spartan still have their own charm that is much more comfortable to be in.

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