Happy New Year?

Happy New Year Dear Reader, and thank you for continuing to read my twice monthly drivel that spews forth from my  obviously damaged mind. Maybe it’s reassuring for you to have somebody madder than yourself?  Or maybe I just admit it and embrace it!

I think at the beginning of any year we always look back to the previous year and basically just hope for the best. That’s  exactly what I did in 2019 and look where it got us!  So this year I’m going to look back and search for the great positivity from 2020. 

I think many of us would describe 2020 as the shittiest of years for a long time.  We were introduced to Covid and saw a lot of our everyday freedoms curtailed in quite a disconcerting manner.  Our dear President Manu, declared that we were at war with this deadly virus.  And made sure the press scared us into complying with some very draconian policies to “protect” us.  So to those who are still alive I say, well done!  To those of us who are still alive I  say, don’t forget those who didn’t make it.  I’m not going to go into inflated figures of Covid related deaths and all the conspiracy theories that might exist, because when you’re  dead, you’re  dead, Covid or no Covid. 

At the beginning of my year I am usually on holiday from work and will think how far away August seems until we get to go on holiday again.  I, like many of my colleagues with look to the month of May, and its streak of bank holidays, labour day on the 1st of May, VE Day on the 8h of May, even though France at best came in a slight second, Whit Monday, and Ascension Thursday.  We are looking to see if it is a worker’s year, or a year for the bosses.

Let me explain to the non French of you.  In France we have a concept that is a wonderful thing, called “le pont” or the bridge.  If a public holiday falls on a Thursday; we get the Friday off too, and the same for a Tuesday; we get the Monday off. If the holiday is on a Wednesday, you get the Wednesday off.  You can’t  win ’em all!

I’ve  just checked on the calendar, and this year it’s half and half.  The 1st and the 8th are on Saturdays, so tough!

Right, now that you know about the concept, you will realise that we look to the month of May as being a way to get a couple of long , and most importantly, paid, weekends.  The weather is usually good and gives us a foretaste of Summer.  Brilliant right?  It also helps “bridge” the gap between January and August, which can be very long otherwise.

Well in 2020 all bets were off.  We discovered a new concept that year. The concept of lockdown.  On the 17th of March, the country went into lockdown, which was basically house arrest, but you’re allowed out to buy groceries, to get one hour’s exercise a day, but that’s  it. Translated into reality the country pressed the pause button, and everyone was put on furlough, with 85% of net pay paid by the government, and the rest by the company.

House arrest isn’t a very positive term, so let’s  make it more positive.  At the Eve of Saint Patricks Day, my local supermarket stocked up on Guinness and put it on special offer!  Daddy was going to have some special Daddy time, and not have to worry about going into work the next day. My son had set up clandestine meetings with his new girlfriend, and despite our protests decided to go out and visit her.  Sex is a powerful driving force…  we said that it would be silly to pay a fine of 135€ just for that.  The following week she moved in with us and spent the whole of lockdown with us.  That brought a certain animation into our lives and despite the intensity of it all, it could have been a lot worse. 

It also afforded me time to rest. I mean proper rest.  A rest from everyday life.  Not like a holiday rest, but a rest never the less.  It made us realise how speical such a moment can be.  It allowed us time to be physically present with each other in a way that “normal life’ doesn’t afford us.  It allowed us to discover a new person. With faults, but also great qualities. The first being that she is a cheap drunk, which in our family who has had a great fondness for drink drinks for generations is really a blessing.  I’m  not saying that we are all alcoholics, despite our Irish roots, but we do partake and enjoy a drink drink. As opposed to a drink, which is left for total abstainers which are a curse on humaity. 

I discovered that my daughter has a fondness for making cakes, and not only just of making them, but is quite good at it.  This brings joy to my heart, as I too, have a fondness for cakes, especially eating them!

We lost track of time, and with hindsight, I realise what a luxury that is.  We all have our phones on constant alert, we all have things to do, we all like to consider ourselves busy, but there,  we were all on hold. Not just people like me but everyone.  Yes, I’m  talking about you, celebrities.  Those people on TV,   those people on our screens.  We saw them trying to prove how they were still relevant on various podcasts, and showing what they looked like without the glamour and  how like us they were, in their massive houses, with massive kitchens, and how in reality they look as shitty as we do on a morning after having had some drink drinks.   I think they burst the bubble and broke the illusion of magic that surrounds them. That’s  an other great thing about Covid.  It showed us the sameness of humanity.  People in my little council house were under the same restrictions as those in mansions. Money and fame couldn’t protect them.  Talk about a level playing field. 

It gave me time also to get back into film photography and my greatest achievement was to conquer my film funk.  I discovered what I had been doing wring and no longer make that mistake. 

Towards the end of that first month of lockdown, cracks were staring to appear, but we still managed to get along enough so as not to kill eachother before Covid would.

I came out of lockdown early in order to go back to work on the 20th of April. As you know I am a big lad, and my BMI is above a certain level which could have allowed me to remain on lockdown and not go back to work.  But as I said to my boss, I’m  not going to get any thinner by staying at home, and the idea of having somebody in “my” stores, not working the way I did was abhorrent.  At the time I was also the only person working in my stores that knew all the products etc…  I was therefore allowed back.

Restrictions were gradually lifted and we came out of our shelters with our masks on, and started to look forward to Summer.  A trip to the UK was definitely out of the question, and my little getaway to Hull, would be cancelled.  I negotiated well and got all my money back. I was one of the lucky ones.  By early July travel restrictions had been lifted and as I had some time off from work, I took my daughter to Paris for the Day.  I rediscovered the  capital after having beem away for 20 years.  I also got to spend some quality time with my daughter.  We had the chance to meet up as a wider family, so for the Fête Nationale, and met up with other membres of the French family to celebrate.  Thanks to Sean Tucker and his very educative videos, I had launched myself into the world of portrait photography and was fortunate to have some willing victims to be portraited…  We even celebrated the 60th birthday of a great friend too. It felt almost normal again. 

August saw me going back to Paris twice and loving the capital as much as ever.  I’ll be back!

Spetember seemed to be very normal, but mask wearing seemed to be coming back into fashion. This would not be your typical rentrée. Even in  the windband things were going to change as lockdown 2.0 came info force.  Lockdown 2.0 was an awful lot like what I lived through in April.  Everyday freedoms taken away, except I could still go to work, and al5hough regearsals, they had changed and we were spaced out in the rehearsal romsphyically I mean of course. No mushroomswere harmed in any way.  Come Novemeber concerts were cancelled and we discovered curfews, but only in certain counties.  But it was all just putting off the inevitable further lockdown. 

Christmas was relatively normal and we were allowed to go to the non essential shops again on the 15th of December.  The government installed a nationwide curfew, but would not enforce it for Christmas.  It was good to be together again as a family and celebrate a very special birth.  Don’t worry, I’m  not going to give my Christmas sermon about how God the Son, part of the Holy Trinity, allowed himself to experience a full humanity, and human fragility. Born not as King, despite being God.  Humanity, human fragility, and exceptional humility. 

New Year’s Eve technically was under curfew. My wife had decided to get the house looking ship shape for that evening’s meal.  That means that it is a wonderful opportunity to bugger off and not be there to annoy her by just existing and breathing. 

Last Year I had buggered off to Nantes and spent the afternoon and early evening taking photos of the Hangar  à Bananes, so this year decided to do something else. This might just be turning info a tradition…  possibly…

Over the two weeks of holidays, my sleep has gone haywire, and although I sleep enough hours it is a broken sleep. Today it would be different. I had decided to bugger off to the beach in Noirmoutier and would enjoy the sun coming up over the last day of this rather “particular” year. The alarm went off at 6am. You see how serious I was? My camera kit was in the car. I shut the car boot and my cup of tea fell off the car roof and broke. It was as if 2020 wanted to get the last laugh. Bitch! I still got off on time and the road took me past my factory. Thankfully I didn’t stop and kept going. I arrived at the supermarket in Noirmoutier at opening time, and decided to go and have a pee in the supermarket toilets.

I went into the toilets and discovered the light was broken. I wasn’t going to pee in the sink, which has been an option, albeit an emergency option in the past. Luckily I had my phone, and used the torch on that to light my way. I got my sandwich and went back to the car. Ate the sandwich, and headed off to my final destination. The rest as the say is history, and you will see the pictures at the end if this article.

So now you’re pretty much up to date. I have seen may Instagram stories being rather rude about 2020, and how shitty it was and how 2021 can only get better. But taking stock, 2020 was a good year. People got together against a common foe, people realised that life has more important lessons for than Facebook. People realised that there are so many more important things in life, like family, and freinds, and the importance of all these social interactions that have been withheld from us. I know now where my priorities lie, and how much I treasure them. Has it been easy? Not every day. But with vaccines coming out, maybe there is light at the end of the tunnel. Maybe i will even be able to get back and visit the UK despite Brexit. Maybe Brexit might even work. A free trade agreement is all that Britain ever wanted anyway. 2021 will undoubtedly have its own set of challenges but 2020 has shown us that we can get through things that might seem impossible. Let us hope so anyway!

Off to see the King

At work lately we’ve been having four day weeks and it’s wonderful! There are slightly fewer orders coming in but that’s OK. There’s enough to keep everything rolling by. And who doesn’t love having a day off? Those who said not me, are either liars or simply mistaken.

So that Friday I decided that I wanted to stay away from the house and get my booty off somewhere to take photos. But where? While I was edging closer to be a full time professional musician I did a spot of teaching in a place called Vihiers. It’s miles away, but still a nice drive out. I stopped edging towards music, and photography has taken over. One of my pupils talked about the Abbaye de Fontevraud. I looked it up on the Internet and started learning about it.

I’m half English and part of that is being real with the French. They need this. During and before the Hundred Years War, this area of France was English, and our King was their King. Those of you who aren’t English might have heard of Robin Hood, who looked just like Kevin Kostner and had a mate who looked strangely like Morgan Freeman. There was the Evil Prince John who became King when Richard the Lionheart (who looked really badass and you could mistake him for Sean Connery) went off on a Crusade to show just how badass he really was. Their mother was Eleanor of Aquitaine. Eleanor, her Husband Henry Plantagenet, their son Richard (the famous badass), and Isabelle d’Angouleme who was married to John. Her bad… We all make mistakes.

So this is kind of crazy for me who enjoys history and discovers more of the Anjou region which is just down the road from the Vendée. On the way I recognised a place where I used to buy foie gras when we first moved here. I called in on the off chance of being able to make a purchase and take something good home for my family. It’s changed a bit since 15 years ago, and offers different products. I left some money there and felt happy about buying something directly from the producer that was made on site etc. And it tasted really good too.

Sooooo… I turn up in the Village of Fontevraud l’Abbaye and I even managed to find the said Abbaye. 11€ for the entrance ticket, which seemed reasonable.

A bit of history here for those who can’t be bothered to click and have a read. Basically, the abbey was founded 1101 by the itinerant preacher Robert of Arbrissel. It developed and flourished during the Plantagenet era, went downhill after the Plantagenets were no more, however by the Hundred Years War things were going downhill, and during an inspection in 1460, the abbey was found to be barely inhabited. Fast forward to 1457 reforms were introduced by the then abbesse Marie of Bretagne. Louis the XI gave the place his blessing and the place started to really try to get back on its feet again, but without a huge amount of success. In 1491 there came Renée who was from the French Royal family (the Bourbons, french royals and not the rather tasty biscuits or whiskey). I’m not going to translate the whole of the French wikipedia article but you get the gist right? Things got better, and by the time the French decided that Royalty wasn’t for them during the French Revolution, things were OK!

However as the revolutionaries weren’t into Royalty and because of the so called “Enlightenment” philosophies, they weren’t into religion in a big way either. That continues to this very day. I promise not to get political! They basically get rid of the nuns, and by 1804, Napolean, yes him again, decided to make the place a prison, and it remained so until 1963.

When I went there I wanted to feel the Royal side with Richard the Lionheart and feel the medieval legends in the walls. But I’ll risk being contraversial, and say that I felt more the “prison vibe” and it might be because of the less than sunny autumnal weather, but I could feel the buildings being a place of great suffering. Quite ominous in fact.

Since 1975 it was converted from a prison into a Cultural Centre for the Region. You can see a few “colour” photos of the latest art installation which was very impressive.

Would I go back? Possibly, but not in Autumn.

Canon and the Helios 44-2 58mm

It was a Sunday after a night celebrating a friend’s birthday with a “couple” of drinks. Which meant I was a tad on the tired side. Not hungover of course. Let’s just say that I needed to move my booty and air my mind.

As those of you who know me might have guessed already that meant making sure I was fit to drive. I was fit to drive. Grabbed my Canon 6D Mark ii and stuck on the Helios 44-2 58 mm F 2,0 lens.

At 58 mm we are leaving the standard focal lengths and heading off into portrait lens territory. How bold of me! Especially as I would be using it on the streets of Nantes. It’s a M42 screw mount lens and therefore needs an adapter in order to work on my modern DSLR. Manual focussing and without focus peaking and with my bad eyes is not easy unless yon use the flippy outy screen and zoom in,which meant that even I could get some in-focus images.

The Helios is a Russian lens from the Soviet era and the build quality could be described as slightly solid. When I first bought it I had placed it on my dining room table. It fell off the table onto the tiled floor and damaged a tile… But you dear reader are sensible and don’t do that kind of sh*t so you’ll be fine.

One thing I haven’t mentioned yet is the bokeh that this lens gives out. If you like creamy bokeh goodness with a bit of a swirl then you won’t be disappointed. Try and spot it as you look through the photos. The bokeh whores amongst you will not be left wanting.

Saint Cado

Hi everyone. There’s going to be some of you who will be in shock at the end of this article. I’m presenting some colour photographs to you today!!! I know. You’re already scrolling down to check and see if it’s true, and yes it is. I have to keep all of you on your toes after all!

By rights, i should have been in Hull this weekend but because of Covid it just wasn’t going to be happening. I did however, go to Paris as you saw previously and spent some time in Nantes admiring modern architecture. On the Saturday I was being yelled at by my wife because if we were late leaving the house to see my mother in law it was of course my fault for not having been arsed to collect and prepare all my gear.

I had a few things planned you see. I wanted to use my in laws as willing victims for some portraiture so I needed my studio kit, and I wanted to walk along the beaches and coast so I wanted something light and wide that would allow me to do that too.

For the photos in this series I was using my Canon 6D Mark ii and the 16-35mm lens, which I think is my official favourite lens. I have a 24mm equivalent for my xt2, but it’s not the same. I also have a 77mm thread CPL filter (which I lost whilst shooting and now hate myself) and you’ll see why I wanted it with me.

It was 10h30 and I was to be back for lunch at 12h. That’s generally enough for a walk and to get a couple of shots.

I had decided to do all the Brittany Clichés that I could think of. Small boots, sea, and lobster pots. I’m on the coast, what else did you expect?

And this is why I wanted to use the CPL filter. Get the blues slightly richer, but most importantly to minimise the reflections on the sea so you too can see how clear the water was. And boy was it clear!

One of the first shots was of the trees and the light coming through and the great shadows. Probably a left over from my architecture photography a couple of days earlier. I also wanted the lens because it has image stabilisation, which I needed for inside the church as I couldn’t be bothered to hoy around my tripod.

I’m all for getting the right shot, but with a little effort as possible and taking advantage of what my gear will allow me to get away with.

So what do “they” say about wide angle photography? “They” say you have to have a foreground element that leads the eye to the background element. Because if you don’t it just looks boring. “They” say that you have to do this and do that…. I was just spending a bit of “me” time to get away from “them” so I did what the blooming heck “I” wanted to do.

I walked around the island of St Cado and saw how the view developed in front of me. I popped down to the reservoir where people would go to be blessed. I went into the chapel, and then back over to the mainland , to the car, and to lunch. I seem to have forgotten my phone in the car too. Oh deary dear. My bleeding heart. Best decision I made that day, I think. That and getting out to take some photographs.

Flash portraits

I know nothing about flash photography. Well I know a tiny bit but hardly anything. During lockdown, when everyone was making cakes, cooking, making banana bread, drinking and getting fat, I decided to do something about it. Yes people. I went onto YouTube and started researching the whole thing.

I’ve been taking photos for as long as I can remember and had a flash. It gives off a powerful light, and back then you had to calculate the exposure from the distance and the sensitivity of your film, and the results I got with it were, at best, not what I was after. That poor flash became neglected and then the batteries leaked and I lost the thingy, technical term again, that kept the batteries inside.

I did get good at “natural light” photography and that was fine. But it was always because I was useless and incompetent using a flash.

But that was then. I have no graduated from incompetent clumsy fool, to beginner. Don’t worry, I’m still a clumsy fool though.

There was this video that caught my eye made by Sean Tucker. He’s a photographer, and in my eyes at least, a rather good one. He’s also quite a good teacher, and I have learnt a lot from him, and he has allowed me to rethink my photography and made myself ask some deep philosophical questions about “why?”

He talks a lot of sense, and is zero bullshit, which is also very appealing. I enjoy his humility, and honesty. These two qualities are so rare nowadays and it’s wonderful to discover them again in this man.

So…. back to the video. I’ll just put it down here and let you watch it first and then we can both be reading from the same page as it were.

Not bad was it! What I like about the whole thing is that it is basic, gets the skill set simplified and presents it in an easy to understand way. I’m lucky as far as knowledge goes. I’m not a “complete beginner,” but I did get so much out of this.

I went onto Amazon, as quite a lot of us did during lockdown, and ordered the kit. It eventually arrived and I couldn’t get the bloody trigger to connect with my flash. I ended up ordering one of the same brand that wasn’t too expensive. I have a very small space to do everything but it fits, just, but just is good enough for me.

I started off just using the backdrop and the light coming in from the window. Those shots are in the last two articles. Here and here… My willing victims, erm, I mean models being my wife, and my daughter. I thought I would start gently with people I knew. I have a certain social anxiety, so it felt better than being with a complete stranger.

The next day I set up everything with the flash and the rest. This time it was just my daughter, but we had a laugh, and it was a lovely way to spend time. That was until she said she would be charging me 20€ a pop! I got her down to 5€, and I ended up taking her out for lunch in Nantes today just the two of us.

So here are the results. I was using the Canon 6D Mark ii, with the traditional nifty fifty, 50mm, F1.8 lens. Any “constructive” criticism is welcome, and encouraged. I am far from knowing everything, and learn something every day. Thank you for being so patient!

My daughter

So as in the last post I’m just going to let these photographs just speak for themselves. It was the same set up. My daughter instead of my wife. She had been promised a film on Netflix if she posed for me. A fair exchange in my view!