It’s all about the light

Turbine Hall

Turbine Hall

The difference between a good photograph and a mediocre one normally comes down to one thing – the quality and direction of the light.  This can be illustrated quite easily by looking at two photographs taken within minutes of each other in the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in London.

Turbine Hall 2

The main difference between the two photographs is that in the second one a cloud had covered the sun removing the dramatic lighting that fills the Turbine Hall between 5.30 and 6.00 during the summer months.  When taking a shot like the first one you need to make a few decisions.

First how is it to be exposed?  Expose for the shadows and the highlights will burn out.  Expose for the highlights and all of the detail is lost in the darker areas of the photograph. When faced with a scene like this an option is to select spot metering on the camera and expose on the cusp between the light and dark areas.  If your camera has an electronic viewfinder (like the Fujifilm X-T1) then it should show you how the photo is likely to look before you take the shot.

You can then use the exposure compensation dial (if you have one) to fine tune the image and if possible set the camera to shoot in RAW rather than JPEG as this will give you far more options when it comes to processing on your computer.

Once you are satisfied that the settings are correct then it all comes down to patience.  You want to get dramatic shadows to complement any people in the frame which means you want them walking in the lighted strips – the only problem is that when people are walking towards a bright light source it is often more comfortable on the eyes to walk in the shadowy areas which is no good for your photo so you will get a lot of misses before you end up with a photograph you are happy with!

A few considerations include making sure the people in the photo do not overlap (this approach makes it a far cleaner image and should be considered for many shots of people together).  Using the bright sun to backlight hair can make the subject more easily visible against a dark background and adding in the mirror effect of the glass wall on the right can double the dramatic effect of the window.  The only other thing I did with this photo was to stop down the lens in order to maximise the starburst effect on the sun (I think that the slight added noise of using a higher ISO is worth it).

Settings were 1/200 of a second at f/22 and 1600 ISO and the photograph was taken with a Fujifilm X-T1 and 18-55mm zoom lens.  The photo was developed in Lightroom 5 with Silver Efex Pro 2.

We are all humans beneath the mask

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James Franciscus – describing the spontaneous segregation of the actors that occurred during the filming of Beneath the Planet of the Apes in 1969.

“During lunch I looked up and realized, my God, here is the universe, because at one table were all the orangutans eating, at another table were the apes, and at another table were the humans. The orangutan characters would not eat or mix with the ape characters, and the humans wouldn’t sit down and eat with any one of them. I remember saying, ‘Look around — do you realize what’s happening here? This is a little isolated microcosm of probably what’s bugging the whole world. Call it prejudice or whatever you want to call it.  Whatever is different is to be shunned or it’s frightening or so forth.’  Nobody was intermingling, even though they were all humans underneath the masks. The masks were enough to bring out our own little genetic natures of fear and prejudice. It was startling.”

The little anecdote above is a chilling reminder of mankind’s natural tendency to segregate itself into groups and create a culture based on ‘them and us’.  It is self-evident that we are all ‘us’ and there is no ‘them’ other than one that we have drawn in our own minds and painted with our prejudice.  Across the world a storm of intolerance is raging, with people’s basic human rights being eroded on a daily basis – this is why it is so important that London sets an example of support for the Pride movement and opens its arms to everyone without recourse to preconceptions.  Once it is accepted that we are all ‘us’ then everything should change – whether this will happen in my lifetime I remain unsure.

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It was with this in mind that I headed down to Pride in London 2014 to give my support to all of those taking part in what is an essential statement to those areas in the world that are mired in the swamp of intolerance and bigotry.  I would urge everyone to consider doing the same if we are to send a message to the world that prejudice and civilisation are mutually exclusive concepts.

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If you are a budding photographer and want a chance to practise your photography while giving support to this important cause while interacting with some great people you should go along to the next Pride procession in your town.  This was the first time I had tried to photograph the procession using the new Fuji X-T1 and I can confirm for all that it is indeed weather-sealed as I was soaked within minutes of arrival – the camera did not miss a beat.  A few tips for photographing something like this include getting the settings right on the camera up front (I set the default lowest shutter speed to 1/200 to freeze the action and shot all of the shots wide open to reduce the depth of field).

I have posted a gallery of photographs from the day below and wish all of the participants my very best.  If your photo appears here and you would like it to be removed or want a high resolution copy for your own use please let me know and I will oblige.  All photographs taken on a Fuji X-T1 with 55-200mm Fujinon lens.

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The Great Artscape

Street Art

I have always loved art. Perhaps it is because I was immersed in it as a child. Everywhere at home there was art, or the raw materials waiting to become art. Half-squeezed oil paint tubes, brushes,  canvas, paper, easels, clay, wood and chisels. You can’t help but love art when your mother is an artist – it becomes part of your DNA (quite literally!)

Possibly because I witnessed so much art in the making I’ve always found art galleries to be strangely cold and sterile places where art is displayed out of context and mostly without reference to the artists themselves. No noises, no smell, no fascinating studio filled with pieces of half-finished or discarded art. No eccentricity. Just white walls and a curator’s view of how the art should look each day. At night people are banished, the doors are locked and it all falls silent, like some huge forbidding shrine.

How much better it would be if the art could be set free and artists allowed to create their work without the constraints of commissions or the control of curators. It was with this in mind that I headed over to Brick Lane this weekend to take a peek at some of the art that had escaped and was running free in that area.  What I wandered into I can only describe as The Great Artscape.

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I took the underground to Aldgate East station and then wandered aimlessly along Whitechapel Road before entering Osborne Street and making my way up to Brick Lane itself.  Everywhere there was street art great and small.  The art here has wonderful vibrancy to it – fresh and unencumbered, merging with the environment and I am guessing mostly transient in nature. Beneath some of the pieces you could see a hint of the previous art that had been painted over.  Everywhere I looked I spotted something else that was worth a closer look.

DSCF8946I was not alone in this venture – the entire area seemed to be filled with tourists all waving cameras and wandering down dark alleyways art spotting.  Taking a selfie with a piece of Brick Lane art seems to be a necessity for many visitors to London these days and there were even guides explaining the background to some of the pieces to groups of American tourists.  As for the locals they seem to take it all in their stride which makes this area a haven for street photographers.  If you want to practise your street photography then this is the place to come.  An interesting and vibrant community and the most wonderful backdrops you could ever hope for.

Street Art

The place lends itself to exploring and wandering around – some great cafes, restaurants and pubs as well as street food on market days.  The streets I remember going down include Redchurch Street, Heneage Street, Brick Lane (which lies at the heart), Osborne Street, Grimsby Street, Pedley Street, Cheshire Street and possibly Bacon Street and Sclater Street.  The basic rule seems to be to explore – you will not be disappointed at what you find.

I think whoever is behind this project (if any one person can be credited) is a visionary but if it simply developed organically via the community itself then it is a wonderful example of what can be achieved. Without the art the area could be drab – there is nothing worse than a grey shop shutter or dirty piece of blank hoarding.  Instead they have created a vibrant area that has become a destination in its own right.  So if anyone asks whether street art should be embraced in your area think of Brick Lane – perhaps the answer will then be an emphatic ‘yes’.

I have put some more photos in the slide show below and hope you enjoy.

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All shots taken with a Fujifilm X-T1 and 18-55mm lens with the camera set to film simulation mode for Fuji Velvia.

The IP of all of the art here resides with the artists.  If any of your art is displayed here and you want to be credited in the Blog (or want the image removed) please let me know and I will oblige.

 

The power of the anonymous figure

Winter tree on Hampstead Heath

How many times when trying to take a photograph have you been frustrated by someone walking into the frame?  It has happened to all of us – the scene is set, the lighting is just right, you are about to press the button and pow! someone walks nonchalantly into the scene, completely oblivious of what you are doing and seemingly intent on hanging around for an interminable amount of time.  Eventually the light changes and that great photo is lost forever.

Well all is not lost – even if you are shooting a landscape don’t lose sight of the fact that someone in the frame can really enhance the photo – a person provides scale and if timed right can create a sense of mystery.  Who is the person?  What are they doing?  Where are they going?  That is the power of the anonymous figure – its ability to stimulate a response from the viewer.  In street photography you are often trying to get inside the people in the shot – their emotions, their story, their interaction with others.  This technique differs from this in that you are trying to impart a sense of mystery around the figures in the shot – often by using silhouetting or shooting from behind.

Contemplation

Contemplation

When using this approach you will want to concentrate on composition and on timing.  If the person is walking into or out of the picture then wait, don’t just press the shutter as you want them in the correct part of the frame so the photo looks balanced.  I tend to take the shot when their feet come together if they are walking away but there are no hard and fast rules in photography and you will have your own style. The only thing to remember is that you are using the person to enhance the scene not as the central focus of it so the scene needs to be good in its own right and you will have already addressed the balance of the composition, the quality of the light and the exposure.

When using an anonymous person in a photograph I tend to go for a slight under exposure of the image or expose for the background to throw them into silhouette.  In terms of their location that all depends on the photograph – it is tempting to always put the person or main subject in the centre but is often more powerful to put a figure like this to one side (possibly where the bottom third and side third of the photo intersect as in the photo below).

A lonely sunset

A lonely sunset

So next time someone blindly wanders into your beautiful photo don’t despair – it may be just what you need to liven things up!

A final tip – when taking a shot of a group of people you may want to try to make sure the people don’t overlap each other in the photograph.  It is easier said than done but can really make a difference to the final results.

The silent guardian

The silent guardian

 

All shots taken with a Fujifilm X-Pro1 and 14mm lens.  A review of the new X-T1 will be posted eventually…

 

 

No one left and no one came

Adlestrop station as it is today

Adlestrop station as it is today


Yes. I remember Adlestrop -
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.

The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop — only the name

And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.

And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.

Edward Thomas

Philip Edward Thomas was born in Lambeth in 1878 but from a very early age had a love of the countryside which developed into a passion. For this we can probably look to his aunt in Swindon as whenever he visited her for a holiday he by all accounts “babbled” about the green fields and all of its associated pleasures. This was to become a defining characteristic of his short life, that and the melancholy that he inherited from his mother and which runs like a dark stream through much of his poetry.

On leaving Oxford he had high ambitions but ended up scratching a living through journalism of the literary kind, reviewing books and the like. It was poorly paid and work was hard to come by, contributing perhaps to his sense of impatience and the anger and bitterness that would dog him and those who loved him in the defining years of his life.

The sign and seat from Adlestrop railway station

The sign and seat from Adlestrop railway station

Whenever his name is mentioned the first word that people tend to come out with is ‘Adlestrop’ and the poem above has become one of the nation’s best loved as it seems to strike a chord with so many people and on so many levels. The poem was triggered by a train journey taken on the 25th of June 1914, at a time when Thomas was going through something of a reinvention, and drafted some months later though by all accounts it was a difficult birth. Striven by indecision over enlistment Thomas was suddenly able to write poems like never before and in November to December 1914 he wrote five poems, one of which was Adlestrop.

Edward Thomas and Robert Frost

Edward Thomas and Robert Frost

He was an extremely gifted literary critic with a particular penchant for reviewing poetry and in October 1913 had met Robert Frost – a defining moment in his life and possibly one that would ultimately lead to his untimely death in April 1917 at the Battle of Arras. Frost encouraged Thomas to try his hand at poetry and if it hadn’t been for his influence this poem may never have been written. Sadly it is now well known that Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’ was written for Edward Thomas and may have unwittingly changed his path to one of enlistment, warfare and his ultimate demise on that foreign field. It has been suggested from his notes that Thomas was going to visit Frost on the day of the train ride and it was a particularly beautiful day with blackbirds singing in the willow trees of Adlestrop as the train awaited its departure.

Adlestrop Railway Station

Adlestrop Railway Station


Adlestrop Railway Station

Adlestrop Railway Station

The poem was written in England before Thomas was exposed to the horrors of war and reflects his love of nature and of country which is evident throughout his prose work ‘The Icknield Way’ published only a year before. The small village of Adlestrop is little-changed from how it would have been when the poem was written – obscure and everyone’s typical image of an idyllic country village. When I passed through at the weekend no one left and no one came either and the church there was filled with a poignant silence as I read this memorial to the brave young men who had left this tiny village never to return.

War memorial in Adlestrop church

In some ways the poem has a sense of John Clare about it for they both shared a love of the countryside and of nature

The gay convolvulus, wreathing round the thorn,
Agape for honey showers;
And slender kingcup, burnished with the dew
Of morning’s early hours

…but it also reflects the stark reality of what lay ahead for communities such as Adlestrop. Only Thomas himself knows exactly what he meant by the express-train but I fancy it was a reference not to the train he had journeyed on but what lay ahead, when the express-train of war would stop unwontedly at villages like Adlestrop and carry away their young men not to glory but to death and by doing this would change rural England forever.

Adlestrop today

Adlestrop today

A surprising sign in Adlestrop

A surprising sign in Adlestrop

Shooting film with a digital camera

Sunset over Westminster

When I made the transition from film to digital one of the greatest benefits seemed to be the ability to take endless quantities of photos and to see the results immediately. However what seems at first to be a blessing can turn out to be a curse. There is nothing worse than arriving home to be faced with hundreds of shots to import into the computer and when you go through them none seem to hit the mark. Digital photography has brought with it the great benefit of immediacy but by so doing it has for many people removed thoughtfulness and consideration from their photography. When you have only a small number of potential photos to take, and every time you push the button you know you will have to pay for the developing and printing, it tends to force you to take more care with composition, exposure, impact etc.

So some time ago I decided to try a new project, I would pretend my digital camera had a roll of film in it and restrict the day’s shooting to only 24 frames. No deleting and no second tries. The aim would be to get the shot first time and once the 24 shots were used up I would have to put the camera back in the bag just like in the olden days.

Winter tree on Hampstead Heath

The first thing I noticed when trying this out was that everything slowed down – if I only had 24 shots then I had to make every shot count. Composition became better, more considered, and I started spending more time on getting the exposure just right. If the subject was moving I had to wait until they were in just the right place before taking the shot.

The Palace of Westminster - last shot on the "roll"

The Palace of Westminster – last shot on the “roll”

So what have I learned from this project? I think one of the first things to be rammed home is that I should stop taking photos of things just because they look like they may be ok when I get them on the computer. The old adage “rubbish in, rubbish out” holds true as ever for photography – if it looks like junk in the viewfinder then it is junk. Don’t press the shutter unless it is something worth photographing.

Love on the rocks

Love on the rocks

Of course it isn’t practical to use this approach all of the time – after all why buy a digital camera if you are going to constrain yourself in this way? It is, however, a very useful exercise to try out if you want to focus on slowing yourself down, really thinking about the composition, and working towards taking that elusive great shot that seems to evade all of us.

The Dead Man's Hole - a mortuary beneath Tower Bridge

The Dead Man’s Hole – a mortuary beneath Tower Bridge

All of the shots on this page were taken using this technique and it has made a real difference to the way I now approach photography. I am taking fewer shots but have a higher hit rate of acceptable photos. My hard drive is no longer getting clogged up with mediocre shots and post processing has become a whole lot more fun!

Parliament Hill Fields

Parliament Hill Fields

So what do you do if you have taken 24 shots and there is a great subject just crying out to be photographed? Well you could do what I used to do with my old Olympus OM4 – I could just squeeze one extra shot on the end of the roll if I was careful and sometimes they would process it for free…

Dark contrasts

Dark contrasts

The Ghost of Shadwell Stair

Shadwell dock stairs

I am the ghost of Shadwell Stair,
    Along the wharves by the water-house,
    And through the cavernous slaughter-house,
I am the shadow that walks there.

Yet I have flesh both firm and cool,
    And eyes tumultuous as the gems,
    Of moons and lamps in the full Thames,
When dusk sails wavering down the Pool.

Shuddering a purple street-arc burns,
    Where I watch always. From the banks
    Dolorously the shipping clanks.
And after me a strange tide turns.

I walk ‘till the stars of London wane,
    And dawn creeps up the Shadwell Stair.
    But when the crowing sirens blare,
I with another ghost am lain.

Wilfred Owen

This poem was first drafted at Scarborough between January and February 1918, then in July or August it was revised just prior to Owen’s tragic death. If you walk down to the Thames, near Shadwell Basin, the stairs can still be found, leading down from the docks to the Pool of London. Forgotten now by most they are still the haunt of Mudlarks who can be seen retrieving London’s detritus when the tide is low.
Tower Bridge Pool London boats Thames autochrome 3LambsStudio The ‘Pool’ of London referred to in the poem as it would have appeared to Owen

and as it is now - a watery desert

and as it is now – a watery desert

The beauty of poetry is that it can often be read on many levels with the meaning belonging to the individual who decides to engage with the verse. For me Owen’s ‘ghost’ is not some spectral presence drifting ethereally above the Stairs, or haunting the shadowy passages that surrounded the docks at that time.

Although there would of course be many reasons to write of a ghost at Shadwell Basin given its history of murder, intrigue and accidental death. A quick glance at the newspapers of the 19th century reveals tales of gruesome murders and tragic deaths. Dragging bodies from the dirty waters of the Shadwell Basin was probably a regular occurrence in Dickensian London just as it was at Tower Bridge just a short distance away.

The Dead Man's Hole - a mortuary beneath Tower Bridge

The Dead Man’s Hole – a mortuary beneath Tower Bridge

The Ghost of Shadwell Stair has a striking resemblance to the famous Oscar Wilde poem – ‘Impression du Matin’ – almost as if it is a further exploration of the “pale woman all alone” with “lips of flame and heart of stone” and the ghost could perhaps be Wilde’s prostitute.

But one pale woman all alone,
    The daylight kissing her wan hair,
    Loitered beneath the gas lamps’ flare,
With lips of flame and heart of stone.

But we have to ask the question as to whether or not Owen’s shade was indeed a prostitute or if the use of the first person indicates that the entire poem is instead an abstract reflection of his own sexuality or even a description of a homosexual liaison driven to take place in London’s shadowy alleyways. You will have your own views on this I am sure. There is a little-known and stumbling stanza that was deleted from later versions of this poem – it reads as follows and was meant to be the third in the original draft after ‘Pool’:

And I have lips that are fresh o’ night,
    And ways like the river mists, and hands
    Like the gradual tide upon the sands,
To feel and follow a man’s delight.

The final line is crossed out hesitantly on the manuscript and the flow of the verse is stilted almost as if Owen’s mind were somewhere else. He finally replaces the last line of this with “To feel what is wrong and smooth it right” but appears to have abandoned it in later versions. This part of the poem never appeared in Blunden’s celebrated collection and is missing also from Stallworthy’s definitive work.

The deleted lines

The deleted lines

It may be that Owen removed it because it was simply not up to his usual standard although ‘The Ghost’ is, in any case, a lesser poem that never fully realised its potential. Rather it is the back story that is so fascinating for there is no doubt but that Owen was gay although his brother Harold denied it vehemently, describing it as “sheer nonsense” when interviewed by the Times in August 1970 following the publication of “Owen Agonises” a paper attributed by the Times to “an American” as if that were enough to discredit the entire theory. When considered in context ‘The Ghost’ has a poignant beauty for me, especially relevant at a time when newspapers across the world are filled with homophobic rhetoric and oppressive nations are riding a tidal wave of blind hatred pushed to the degree of fervour by intolerant and ignorant people across the globe. The fact that Owen had to hide his feelings, like Wilde before him and countless others since is a sad reflection of humanity at its worst. What drives these individuals to persecute people for their love is quite beyond my understanding.

It is difficult now to imagine what Shadwell Dock looked like in Owen’s time “Along the wharves by the water-house, And through the cavernous slaughter-house” is very evocative of times when the slaughterhouses here discharged straight into the Thames. It was a place of noise and smell and hard physical work, brought to life in the poem by the clank of the shipping and the wail of the siren.

Shadwell_Dock_1918 Shadwell Dock warehouses in 1918 – the year the poem was written.

Other aspects of the poem are also open to interpretation – the ‘strange tide’ that turns after the Ghost could of course be a tide of men if we take the Ghost to be either Owen or a prostitute (male or female) but perhaps you have your own ideas?

Wilfred Owen in 1916

Wilfred Owen in 1916

Phototip 2 – using water as a creative medium

West Pier Brighton West Pier Brighton, England

Taking photographs of moving water can be a very satisfying way of expanding your creative expression and is relatively straightforward. I was looking to create an atmospheric shot that was worthy of the abandoned pier. This type of shot should be relatively easy for anyone to replicate.


Composition

The composition was straightforward as the subject lends itself to a close symmetrical shot with no distracting features but I had to take the shot from a little to the right due to a long concrete remnant on the beach that would have been in the way had I gone for a shot from the exact centre. The burned-out pier is a strong enough subject in itself and adding something else would have reduced the atmosphere.

Equipment
For this shot I used the following equipment:
Fujifilm X-Pro1 camera
Fujinon X 18-55mm zoom lens (equivalent to 27-82mm on a full-frame camera)
Hoya circular polarizing filter
Hoya ND400 neutral density filter
Manfrotto Befree tripod

Settings
The camera was set as follows:
RAW
ISO 200 (lowest setting available to maximise exposure time and reduce noise)
Exposure was 10 seconds at f6.4 (camera set for aperture priority and zoomed in to 50mm)

Technique

In this case there was a lot of water movement as the waves were reasonably large but moving slowly. This up and down disturbance of the water provided an opportunity to take a shot with a milky appearance to the water with no clear boundary between the water and the subject and the exposure time was chosen to maximise this. The sun was to the left of the shot and partially obscured by the clouds so the light was strong but quite diffuse which lent itself to this style of shot. The spot meter was used on the pier and both the foreground and sky were slightly overexposed because of this adding to the desired effect. It is worth bracketing the shot when doing this to ensure you get the desired result.

Post processing was done using Lightroom 4 – the main changes being a reduction in clarity and contrast together with setting the black slider to -42 to bring out the subject against the light background.

Another shot taken on the same day is below – this was done using essentially the same technique but with a much longer exposure of 28 seconds at f13. The only approach to take when shooting water is to try out lots of different shutter speeds for each shot to make sure the water texture you finally end up with is the one you were looking for. Problems to watch out for include any areas of strong light reflection on the water (they will burn out the shot badly during a long exposure) and over-long exposures for large rivers which can end up with a dull and fibrous appearance which is rarely attractive. Good luck and happy shooting!

West Pier Brighton West Pier Brighton, England

Parliament Hill Fields

Winter tree A Winter Tree on Parliament Hill

Parliament Hill Fields
Rumbling under blackened girders, Midland, bound for Cricklewood,
Puffed its sulphur to the sunset where that Land of Laundries stood.
Rumble under, thunder over, train and tram alternate go,
Shake the floor and smudge the ledger, Charrington, Sells, Dale and Co.,
Nuts and nuggets in the window, trucks along the lines below.

When the Bon Marché was shuttered, when the feet were hot and tired,
Outside Charrington’s we waited, by the “Stop Here If Required”,
Launched aboard the shopping basket, sat precipitately down,
Rocked past Zwanziger the baker’s, and the terrace blackish brown,
And the curious Anglo-Norman parish church of Kentish Town.

Till the tram went over thirty, sighting terminus again,
Past municipal lawn tennis and the bobble hanging plane;
Soft the light suburban evening caught our ashlar-speckled spire,
Eighteen-sixty Early English, as the mighty elms retire
Either side of Brookfield Mansions flashing fine French Window fire.


Oh the after-tram-ride quiet, when we heard a mile beyond,
Silver music from the bandstand, barking dogs by Highgate Pond;
Up the hill where stucco houses in Virginia creeper drown
And my childish wave of pity, seeing children carrying down
Sheaves of drooping dandelions to the courts of Kentish Town.

Sir John Betjeman

This famous poem by Sir John Betjeman describes a journey on a tram in 1912 or 1913 from the point of view of Betjeman as a young boy. The tram was possibly the number 7, and the route invites a gentle exploration from the old tram stop next to Kentish Town underground and overground railway station to the terminus at the bottom of Highgate West Hill. The skeleton of the old tram stop is still there in Kentish Town, its purpose forgotten now by most, being used by people as a simple shelter from the rain, however much that Betjeman saw on that journey is still visible. Most people are probably unaware that the junction of Kentish Town Road and Fortess Avenue was the centre of the old village and the Assembly House Inn had been rebuilt in a bold new construction in 1898, replacing the ageing building visible in engravings from a hundred years before.

Kentish Town 100 years beforeKentish Town in London at the start of the 19th century

Assembly roomsThe Assembly Rooms, Kentish Town, in the early 19th century before the railway

Much here would also have been relatively new at the time of Betjeman’s tram ride – the underground station was built only 5 or 6 years before in 1907 in Leslie Green’s distinctive style with ox-blood tiling, and the east side of Kentish Town Road had been redeveloped in the late 19th century as a parade of new shops serving the now sprawling urban development.

Kentish Town Station served both the Midland Railway (which ran from St Pancras through Kentish Town and on past Cricklewood) and the Charing Cross, Euston and Hampstead Underground Railway which opened in 1907 (now known as the Northern Line). The “rumbling under blackened girders” felt by Betjeman remains to this day and if you look over the wall behind the tram stop the trains can be clearly seen – it is easy to imagine a young Betjeman doing this after a day of shopping with his mother – the steam locomotives being an altogether more impressive sight than the homogeneous trains of today.

EPSON scanner imageThe start of Betjeman’s journey as it was in 1955. The electric tram cables are clearly visible above as is the Assembly House pub

DSCF4998…and as it is today – the tram stop now only a skeleton bleached by the sunlight

“Shake the floor and smudge the ledger, Charrington, Sells, Dale and Co.,
Nuts and nuggets in the window, trucks along the lines below.”

The coal merchants Charrington, Sells, Dale and Co. did indeed have shops in London but, interestingly, not in Kentish Town. Their nearest branch was at Gospel Oak and Kentish Town was served by the altogether less poetic Hinckling and Co. so the “Nuts and nuggets in the window, trucks along the lines below” were visible but not in Charrington’s. The reference to trucks and lines possibly relates to the practice of displaying coal nuggets in the waggons of a miniature railway in the window of Hinckling’s. Above the large station at Kentish Town was a large painted advertisement on the end of the new terraced houses and I like to think that, perhaps, the advert in 1913 was for Charrington’s, prompting that classic line.

“Rocked past Zwanziger the baker’s, and the terrace blackish brown,
And the curious Anglo-Norman parish church of Kentish Town.”

Zwanziger the baker’s stood at what is now 385 Kentish Town Road a short distance from the tram stop along the road to Highgate and you can imagine the smell of baking bread drifting across the street to tickle the nose (and hunger) of a young Betjeman as he clutched Archibald his teddy bear, precious to him beyond all measure.

ZwanzigerZwanziger’s c.1913

Sadly only a year later Zwanziger’s bakery was attacked by a mob which broke the windows and caused extensive damage, driven by anti-German sentiment stirred up by the media. A salutary lesson in these days when so much xenophobia is once again filling the pages of the tabloids. Eventually Zwanziger was forced to change his family name to Cordingley for fear of further retribution and damage to his business. Now it is a fish and chip shop.

385 Kentish Town Road as it is today

385 Kentish Town Road as it is today

The Bon Marché was one of the biggest drapery shops in the area at the time, eventually closed and replaced with Woolworth’s and now replaced by Sainsbury’s. The “terrace blackish brown” was mostly demolished in the late 1960s but some aspects can still be seen as you stroll along Kentish Town Road towards Highgate Hill, particularly on the right before reaching the “curious Anglo-Norman parish church of Kentish Town”. Curious possibly because it had two spires or perhaps that it was never properly consecrated.

Betjeman's "very low church"

Betjeman’s “very low church”

“Till the tram went over thirty, sighting terminus again,
Past municipal lawn tennis and the bobble hanging plane;
Soft the light suburban evening caught our ashlar-speckled spire,”

This refers to the tram terminus at the bottom of Parliament Hill. Betjeman loved to reach out to the “bobbles” hanging from the plane trees along this road and clearly visible as he headed home would have been the spire of St Anne’s, the elegant 1860’s church where he was baptised.

St Anne HighgateSt. Anne’s Church Highgate Rise

At the end of his journey is Brookfield Mansions

“Either side of Brookfield Mansions flashing fine French Window fire”

Lacking the mighty elms of yesteryear Brookfield Mansions were built around 1902 and still look in good condition.

BrookfieldBrookfield Mansions

Betjeman spoke often of those days, before the madness of the Great War swept across Europe and everything changed forever:

Sir John Betjeman

Sir John Betjeman

Safe were those evenings of the pre-war world,
When firelight shone on green linoleum.
I heard the church bells hollowing out the sky:
Deep beyond deep like never-ending stars
And turned to Archibald my safe old bear
Whose woollen eyes looked sad or glad at me,
Whose ample forehead I could wet with tears,
Whose half-moon ears received my confidences,
Who made me laugh, who never let me down.
I used to wait for hours to see him move
Convinced that he could breathe. One dreadful day
They hid him from me as a punishment:
Sometimes the desolation of that loss
Comes back to me and I must go upstairs
To see him in the sawdust, so to speak,
Safe and returned to his idolator.

ArchibaldArchibald the bear

Many thanks to the Camden History Society whose research greatly assisted with this post.

Phototip 1 – daylight long-exposure

DSCF1445-Edit
Click for full size image

THE Thames nocturne of blue and gold
Changed to a harmony in grey;
A barge with ochre-coloured hay
Dropt from the wharf: and chill and cold

The yellow fog came creeping down
The bridges, till the houses’ walls
Seemed changed to shadows, and St. Paul’s
Loomed like a bubble o’er the town.

Then suddenly arose the clang
Of waking life; the streets were stirred
With country waggons; and a bird
Flew to the glistening roofs and sang.

But one pale woman all alone,
The daylight kissing her wan hair,
Loitered beneath the gas lamps’ flare,
With lips of flame and heart of stone.
Oscar Wilde

A number of people have asked how some of my photographs were taken so I have decided to post some tips to help assist with the creative process. I hope they prove useful…!

This shot should be easy for anyone to replicate.

Composition

The composition was relatively straightforward, the main aspects being using the bridge to block out most of the ugly hotel that looms behind the main subject, shifting the image to slightly off-centre and ensuring the camera remained as level as possible to avoid the distortion which can happen when a wide-angle lens is tilted upwards.

Equipment
For this shot I used the following equipment:
Fujifilm X-Pro1 camera
Fujinon X 14mm lens (equivalent to 21mm on a full-frame camera)
Hoya circular polarizing filter
Hoya ND400 neutral density filter
Velbon Ultra Max Mini Tripod

Settings
The camera was set as follows:
ISO 100 (low setting to maximise exposure time and reduce noise)
Exposure was 10 seconds at f22 (camera set for aperture priority)

Technique

As it was quite windy, with the wind blowing towards the camera, the tripod was used without the legs being extended to ensure a rigid base for the photograph. A polarizing filter was used to provide an extra couple of stops of exposure and to increase the contrast of the blue sky that was just visible between the clouds (polarizing filters work best when the camera is pointing at 90 degrees to the direction of the sun).

To increase the drama of the shot I used a neutral density filter to allow for a long exposure photograph – this introduced movement into the clouds and smoothed out the river somewhat. The camera was set to spot metering (which only measures the light at the centre of the frame) and a reading taken at the cusp between the bridge and the sky to ensure both the sky and the bridge were correctly exposed. I have found that for shots like this it is essential that the sky is correctly exposed and not burned out! If you do not have a spot meter then it may be worth while bracketing the exposure to ensure it is just right.

Post processing was done using Lightroom 4 – the photograph was shot in colour but I think it looks better in monochrome.

The technique can be used for any photograph where there is a need to smooth out the water or add drama to the sky. Good luck and happy photography!