20 Stories, part III

Continued from Part II

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Land’s end, part I

It’s amazing how different two nearby cities in the same country can feel – take Lisbon and Porto, for instance. Both are in Portugal and on the Atlantic seaboard; both have old world charm, the beginnings of a renaissance and the visible effects of entropy. They are blessed with interesting architecture and the kind of topology that makes for both burning thigh muscles and interesting perspectives. The weather was great in both places when I was there. Yet whilst I instantly fell in love with Lisbon, I felt this underlying sense of unease and being haunted whilst in Porto. At the risk of simplification, Lisbon was happy, and Porto was sad – I don’t think I ever managed to figure out why, either.

On the last day I was there, a friend and I took a short ride out to a part of Porto on the coast called Foz do Douro. In summer, it’s known for its beaches; in winter, its spectacular waves. We were there sometime in between, and the sea was frothily moody, if not quite fully enraged.

There are times when vision just clicks and the frames compose themselves; in the two hours we spent at the start and end of the seawall, lighthouse and the places in between, I probably shot more frames than in the previous two days in Porto city proper. The light was dynamic and changing as fast as the sea conditions; the waves hinted at the power of the ocean and the other gathered to watch only put that even more clearly into context. Every frame held a different mood – dark and moody to ethereally backlit; this particular photograph freezes the sea in a position reminding the onlookers it is not to be trifled with, yet with the same onlookers in defiant poses suggesting the spirit of exploration. The water itself is frozen with texture and delicacy, in contrast to the scale of elements; I probably wouldn’t have blinked if a caravel came into view over the horizon, but lamented not bringing my 250mm.

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Land’s end, part II

Another day, another ocean – this time, the westernmost point of Australia at the edge of the Indian Ocean. In a previous edition of In Pursuit of Transparency I told the tale of how I nearly fell out of an airplane; this was one of the images from that shoot. In some places, aerial work is very difficult because of the number of harnesses you have to wear and the tiny size and restricted view of the aperture you have to work though; in this case, the entire cargo door of the plane was removed, and I had one seatbelt with a questionable buckle. Perhaps a little more restraint might have been good, but I managed to catch myself with the foot bracing against the door frame, and kept on shooting – airtime is after all rather expensive, and a drone wasn’t an option due to the remoteness of the location and flying time required, plus it was early days for that technology which in turn limited image quality.

We had driven nearly a thousand kilometres up the coast over the course of two days, stopping and shooting along the way – the objective being to get abstract textures for an interior decoration client. I was also using the opportunity to practice a little landscape for my own personal portfolio, and see a side of Western Australia I’d never had a chance to visit despite living in the country for nearly ten years.

What we’re seeing here is the interface between an evaporation salt pan and the ocean; the border is provided by an access road. With no sense of scale, the landscape becomes almost fractally organic and it could be the epidermis of some exotic insect. Ironically, with scenes as otherworldly and unrelateable as these, you actually have to tone things down a bit in postprocessing to make them believable. The colors are so intense as to feel unnatural, especially when the composition deliberately excludes other context. It was this surreal palette I took away with me – that, and the seemingly endless droves of large black flies.

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Nudes

I do very little portraiture and even less glamour work. I’m not entirely sure why as I actually enjoy the portraiture process quite a lot; it’s not so much capturing a two-dimensional visual reproduction of a person as it is building a relationship with them to find an aspect of their personality to highlight and preserve. Perhaps a lack of opportunity and my typical commissions tend towards other subjects.

On this particular occasion, I’d had an idea I wanted to try – using strong key strip lighting against a dark background to highlight the human shape, but with the literal twist of using yoga positions and camera plus lighting orientation to trick the viewer into believing another direction was ‘up’ (more on this in the next story). The subject would of course have to be nude and oiled for the lights to follow the key lines of musculature. Another photographer friend acted as fixer and assistant; somehow chemistry wasn’t there with the model, and I wasn’t able to make the images I’d envisioned – partially because she didn’t have the fine position control to allow me to use the very narrow strip lights I wanted, and partially because it was the first time I was working with her. (Not shooting many people means having a rather limited talent book.)

Frustrated, I called for a final halt mid afternoon. After all, it as a creative experiment not a professional job that had to be forced come hell or high water. As we were packing up, I looked out of the window of the studio and found that it had rained and dusk was falling; more time had passed than I’d expected. But final vestiges of a setting sun made for some interesting reflections off the wet road; I wondered ‘what if’. After a few experimental frames of motorcyclists, solo pedestrians and groups, this man passed by whilst carrying his own rainbow – and I knew I had my frame, far more satisfying than any I’d initially planned to make that day.

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Gravitation is relative

A student at one of my workshops wanted to work with a local model; apparently they’d always done that at previous sessions. One was engaged. Her talent happened to involve a pole – she was the Czech national champion for several years running (and several years afterwards).

But rather than doing something in a studio, or just regular poses outdoors, I proposed combining her talents with the street furniture of Prague, and then taking that one step further by finding locations that both gave some context, but also were lit in such a way as to be able to be rotated to once again give the illusion of some rather strange gravitational effects (or wind). Needless to say, we got some very strange looks from other people in the city.

You’d be surprised at how many such locations exist; we easily found a dozen very distinctive ones within walking distance of each other. The sun cooperated and narrow streets worked effectively as baffles that would screen and direct light; careful exposure choices took care of the rest. There’s also a nicely unified color palette through this set – the red dress serves as a striking flag, with one or two other smaller red elements echoing, and an overall warm bias holding things together.

In this particular image, it’s logically obvious that the street sign must be vertical, as well as the lamp; yet the model looks perfectly at ease leaning backwards – or is holding on carefully against a very strong wind. In actuality, she’s hanging upside down on the strength of her legs alone and partially sitting up against gravity. I have a new respect for the fitness level of dancers now…

To be continued in Part IV.

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First published in Medium Format Magazine, June 2019. Reproduced with permission.

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Comments

  1. Filipe J. S. Brandão says:

    Excelent as always! Just a minor correction: Foz do Douro is not a town, it is just a part of the city of Porto. A century ago the distance to the center meant that it took very long to get there and so the richest families had a house in Ribeira (or thereabouts) and another for holidays in Foz (as is locally known). Just a bit more info: Foz translates to river mouth, so it is the Douro’s river mouth.

  2. I love this series. Thank you.

  3. Fine photos and interesting read!

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