Jardin des Plantes, Nantes

This story actually begins in my village in Vendée, with a foray into the next town and its Saturday market. But you could argue that it began earlier in Nantes when I bought my son’s girlfriend an old film camera, a Canon AE1 with a 50mm f1.4 lens, that I nearly kept for myself, but in a pang of culpability, couldn’t. I would have replaced it with a more classic standard 50mm f1.8 lens. Damn you conscience!

Let us start therefore not at the very beginning but the second beginning, which is like the first beginning, but is in fact the second, thus being named the second beginning, but is still a rather good place to start as the Sound of Music told us whilst explaining the notes to sing by using a woodland creature, the sun, me, a long long way to go, sewing, a note after the previous one, an afternoon snack with bread and jam etc.

I might start at the very beginning after all.  My son’s girlfriend is on a journey, much like myself, discovering photography.  As some of you Dear Readers might have noticed, I’m ever so slightly old-school.  Having a digital camera, and shooting like it was a machine gun hoping for the best is not my idea of what photography should be.  I am more sedate, probably because I am more rotund middle-aged gentleman, aka fat bald git, but find that it suits me.  I prefer to take my time.  One of the advantages of film photography is that it forces you to slow down, and concentrate to take a picture, with apparently, but I’m not quite sure, supposedly even, more value.  When I take a photo, I take a photo on purpose.  I do not do it whimsically on the off chance of realising “the” shot.  I also learnt on film, so maybe this is a habit I picked up early on.   

Anyway….  I thought this might be a way to help Elise slow down, and to be more mindful when photographing something or someone.  Mindfulness is all the rage at the moment, but I think it might just be more about taking your time and being conscious of the action you are partaking in.  I refer the reader to the middle-aged rotund gentleman comment earlier.

I made sure she had some film in the camera so it was useable straight away, and explained to how to focus, not just the lens but mentally too.  Explained what all the dials and displays were about and basically let her get on with it.

We are now at the second beginning, which is still an OK kind of place to start.  The day is Saturday, and the previous day we had arranged for them to come over for lunch, and I said that I would go to the market and get some goodies, which means basically, some nice saucission, cheese, nice fruit, some duck sausages to be eaten later on during the week without necessarily needing to duck whilst eating them, but duck sausages, because they were made with duck meat.  Obviously a duck that didn’t….  I came home with my goodies, and was told off for buying too much and how were we going to eat all that….  We gave it a fine go!

Elise then had the idea of doing the typical after French lunch walk, and we were all told that we would be doing it.  However, a friend phoned to invite her to a pyjama party, so there went that idea.  I riposted, saying that it was fine and that we should go out into Nantes to take pictures the next day with the film cameras.  I prepared a couple of cameras for them to use, and some rolls of film.

Even if we didn’t go out I knew I would be at least good for a nice cup of tea.  For Christmas, which was well before the beginning beginning, and even the second beginning, I had brought my daughter a mix to make Madeleines, which French people automatically associate with Proust, in the same way the English automatically associate a cup of tea, with another cup of tea.  The smell as I came down was amazing a filled the house with loveliness and sweetness.  There was also a huge dash of tastiness when I bit into Madeleine number one.  I showed immense self control and put four of my Madeleines into a box with a further half a dozen to share with Killian and Elise.  They too, were very happy with my display of self-control.

The enthusiasm for “going out for a walk” from the previous day had all but disappeared, but we eventually set off for Nantes to visit the Jardin des Plantes, which was where Jules Verne once hang out back in the day.  Tradition, tradition, tradition….

I had my X100F, which I adore, Killian a 1960 Kodak Retinette 1B, and Elise the infamous AE1.  We made a good go at it and ended up cream crackered after a nice long walk.  As the all round good egg that I am I made sure we passed by an open bakery on the way back to the car to get the a treat for the gouter, which usually is the four o’ clock snack for small children, that older children or younger adults still seem to enjoy, even a middle aged rotund gentleman….

Cloé in front of my lens

It was last Friday, and we were only doing 36 hours this week at work, so I was free on Friday afternoon. I like to go and visit my son, and his girlfriend, as I know I’ll be allowed to have a nice cup of tea and be able to talk photography without being told how boring I am. My daughter-in-law asked if I would like to come round as she was doing a photoshoot with somebody from Instagram. There was a friend to do make up and hair, and we would take it in turns being made up and photographed. Sounds like a deal right?

I of course turned up to early as they were getting the other girl from Nantes. I was asked if I could get pizza and off I went to get pizza; It’s easier like that. I got back and everyone was there. Elise, my daughter-in-law, Maureen, to do the make up, and Cloé the girl from Instagram who was along for the ride. That morning I had piled up all my gear and put it in the boot ready for the off. I had a couple of lights and some modifiers for speedlights. It was going to be a good day. Tea, and pizza in the same phrase has to be a good omen.

Elise does a bit of YouTube and has a three light set up for her videos. Fine for video but not so good for photography. As you might have seen I have been exploring the use of artificial light in photography and seem to be on the, if not right path, then certainly a path that is taking me somewhere. So, I wasn’t a fan of these video lights and thereofre set up my own. A flash, that would flash into an umbrella and the light would come back through an translucent white diffuser giving off a nice soft light. Yes I’m a big softy! I had a new led light to act as a hairlight, and was able to turn the power down so it wasn’t too harsh.

Elise started off and it interests me immensely to see somebody else start working and see how they interact with the model. The model being Cloé already made up by Maureen. I would take the occasional “behind the scenes” for Elise. I wasn’t happy with the light, so when it was my turn I turned everything off and just allowed my lights to work their magic. i’m becoming a fan of this soft light and seem to have understood the basics of how it might work and what it might do for me.

Cloé wa already “warmed up” if you can say that, and we started talking about her complexes about the way she looks. I showed her the first photos that we were getting and she seemed happy with the way it was going. I shoot RAW and JPEG at the same time. It means that I can see my black and white image on the screen and it gives me an idea of what I will achieve later whilst editing. I will however only edit my RAW file, as each pixel contains so much more information than a JPEG file, and although less destrucive than back in the day, it is still a feature of JPEG files even though they have progressed immensely over the last 15 years.

We kept talking and caught her laughing at some of my Dad jokes that she hadn’t heard before. I would see a picture I like and then activate the shutter. The first few reminded me of Anne Frank, and what she might have looked like had she have survived the war. Now I’m feeling sad about all that suffering in the camps. What an utter waste of human life.

Anay, we kept going and the feeling of the photos changed and looked slightly more modern. It is 2021after all. I switched to the X100F which is usually for street photography but holds it’s own in a studio environment, and the 35mm equivalent lense was great for getting some full body shots. The fact that Cloé was sitting on the floor gave a very flattering angle and I think I might just have to do it more often.

Before showing you the photos I would like to say a huge thank you to the three girls forputting up with me and the very generous feed they gave me. It gives one such a boost, and at the moment it’s a wonderfull thing to have. Covid is getting right on my wick, and although I know that this situation is temporary, it feels slightly less temporary.

So the tools used for this shoot… Canon 6D Mark 2 with a 50mm F1.8 lens, a Fujifilm X100F with a converter so I could go from a 35mm equivalent to a 50mm equivalent. The fash was a GODOX TT600 speedlight with GODOX X1T triggers.

Barber shop portraits

Dear Reader,

I have neglected you and have been away for some time. I needed to get rid of the introspection and get over it. I have also tried to learn new things and have been experimenting with using speedlites and light modifiers. Now you have already seen the beginnings of this exploration, but I have managed to find new victims, I mean models and was even asked by my barber if I could take some photos for them too.

My father always taught me to be good to people. Goodness will never be wasted. If somebody throws it back in my face then it is a réélection on them and not me. As long as my motives are pure then all is good, so to speak. I have been to that barbershop since it opened and have followed their progress over the years. When I am in Nantes I seem to always have a camera around my neck, as you never know when that “shot” would come along. And whilst waiting my turn I might take a couple of photos and I would of course give them a copy of each photo.

I am more an introvert so the idea of meeting a complete stranger and building a quasi instant rapport with the person is a pretty daunting prospect. Maybe it is what is the most difficult for me. I have been given various means of getting through this scary barrier. Some say, fake it ’til you make it, but it’s not really for me. One thing I did use was get the person to pretend being in a photobooth. I’m generous and so give them 5 shots instead of four, to pull funny faces and get it out of their system. It generally works and I encourage the person in front of the lens, and show them the first images and get them more at ease… I suppose if it works, then it works.

They also see me getting all my kit ready and set up, and you can see a kind of wonderment in their eyes, as if this guy is really serious, so we’re going give it a good go.

So last week I had dropped a message to my son asking him to give me a hand and be my assistant. He was there for moral support and to help me lug my equipment from the underground car park to the actual barbershop He did it brilliantly. So we arrive and they were waiting for us. We introduced ourselves to everyone, new staff, and learnt each other’s names. It’s always nice to say Kim, instead of hey you. Cassiopée was used to being in front of the camera and was fine posing and smiling, and what was worrying me was not being able to get a “real” portrait. Paco, the poor lad was just busy cutting hair.

This of course, raises the subject of what is a “real” portrait.

Portrait photography is about capturing the essence, personality, identity and attitude of a person utilizing backgrounds, lighting and posing.

I don’t know how far I am managing to take this concept on board but I’m trying. So, Cassie was easy to photograph, but Kim was a different matter. She told me before shooting that she didn’t feel at ease being photographed, but when showing her the photographs when I took them, she began to build her confidence, and her colleague helped her too. We did single portraits, then a whole load of portraits of the two girls together. I think the extrovert side of Cassie helped Kim to be less conscious of the camera. It was there but by the time she finished she could have gone for more. Thank heavens for Cassie.

I knew that my camera settings were the right ones for the result I wanted, and my lighting set-up was the way I wanted it and I was getting consistent results which is good too, which just allows me to get on with taking the photos and concentrating on the person in front of my lens. Who doesn’t look good in a low key portrait. I think they have certain elegance that you don’t get in different portrait formats, however much I might love candid street portraits.

Photographs of the inside of the Barbershop.
Inside the barbershop

As I had been asked by the boss to take the photos I felt it was not the time or moment to experiment and decided to keep myself in the “safe” zone. I’m lucky in the way I have a daughter in law or daughter who are always up for being photographed and don’t’ care me trying something new. It had been decided that I would take some portraits of the barbers, and some of the Salon itself. Looking back I was just trying not to take up too much space and for the ambiance shots I might have been better using a wider angled lens to get a larger angle. Each “job” has its constraints I suppose.

Soooooo, the equipment contained the Canon 6D Mark 2, the
Godox TT600 Flash Speedlite, an umbrella with a diffuser, and a Manfroto stand, and a black and white reversible, collapsible backdrop. The two lenses i used wer the 16-35mm F4.0 ans the 50mm F 1.8.

Thank you also to O Barber Nantes, to Cassie, Kim, and Paco, and Bryan who just happened to be there, for being really kind to me and accepting me and letting me getting on with some photography.

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.