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Thursday, April 25

North Pennines

Necessity, as the saying goes, is the mother of invention. We found ourselves facing a sorry situation that required some creative thinking and found the solution in ... drum roll, please ... a caravan. My opinion of caravans is pretty much the same as Jeremy Clarkson's: I don't necessarily want to fire missiles at them or drop them off a cliff but they do tend to get in the way a bit if you're on a single carriageway road and get stuck behind one. And yet, here we are, caravanners.

So how did this happen? It's quite simple, really. Cath and I can't get a holiday together because of our three, needy dogs. We've nobody to look after them and they're too neurotic to survive a spell in a kennel. Cath goes abroad in the summer for some sun with a pal and our daughter, Freya, while I stay home and mind the hounds. So we hit upon the idea of a caravan where we could enjoy a change of scenery in the company of our bichon frise pests.

Not really wanting to tow it all over the place, we decided to put the caravan on a site for the year and picked a lovely, out-of-the-way spot near Haltwhistle, the geographical centre of Britain and ten minutes from Hadrian's Wall. I sort of steered Cath in that direction as I knew there was plenty to photograph. It's 40 minutes from the east coast, the same from the west and a bit less from the Lake District. What I didn't know was just how cold and wet the North Pennines were! There are three particularly cold areas of Britain and where we have the caravan just happens to be one of them.

We've only spent a week or so at the caravan over two visits and the overnight temperature has yet to creep above zero. One morning we woke to a tapping sound on the roof. I went to investigate and found overnight snow had bent some branches down and the wind was knocking them against the caravan. Still, we survived. I lost a couple of fingers to frost bite but, thankfully, not the right forefinger I use to click the shutter so I'm good.

I'm just finding my way about the area and haven't had much time for photography yet but one of my goals is to never point a lens at Cuddy's Crags, the classic, everybody's-done-it shot of Hadrian's Wall. As much as I like Don McCullin's landscapes, even he was tempted to offer up yet another version of the crags. I wonder what the point of it is.

McCullin's shot of Hadrian's Wall.

It's just like Bryce Canyon and the black sand beaches in Iceland: where one goes with some success, thousands follow, all desperate to take the same or a similar image. I imagine people must see a shot they admire - we'll stick with Hadrian's Wall - and say to themselves, "Cracking pic! I'm going to go to Cuddy's Crags, find the spot from which it was taken and do the same thing. Then I can show it to my mates and hope they haven't seen the one that inspired me and they'll think it's all my own work. Result!"

The tripod holes must be so deep in some of these places by now that it will soon be impossible to extricate the old three-legged friend once the photograph has been taken. Perhaps the local tourist authority could do the backs of unimaginative landscape photographers a favour by cementing basic but sturdy tripods to the ground at the more popular views. Weld an honesty box to the tripod and they're done.

There's a difference between slavishly copying prior work and drawing inspiration from it. I'm trying to stick with the latter as far as possible. So no Cuddy's Crags shot from me. Ever. However, I have to admit that I did follow in the footsteps of one of my favourite photographers, Raymond Moore, and had a day trip to Allonby on the Solway coast. If we're being strictly accurate, I suppose Ray followed in my footsteps when he went to Allonby as I was there on a family holiday in about 1968 and his pics date from the 1970s and '80s. So there!

I had two reasons for returning - firstly to see if I could find the seafront holiday cottage we stayed in and to find some of the scenes Ray photographed. I quickly found that I love Allonby as much as Ray did. It's such a quirky place, oddly laid out and photogenic in that melancholic, seasidey way. If I come into a lot of money I'm going to buy Ray's disputed collection (a wrangle over ownership or something means his life's work is confined to a storeroom somewhere and seldom sees the light of day), open the Raymond Moore Gallery in Allonby and have a permanent exhibition of his work there, along with that of other northern photographers.

Here's a couple of Ray's from Allonby:

Both are from the Golden Fleece website, which is a great place to learn all about Ray and his work. I found the first of these scenes quickly enough - it's on the main road through the village - but I'm not sure if I found the second.

The first, from my iphone:

The second one has the same house name "Seychelles" as in Ray's pic but the house looks different. It's possibly just been extended in some way. What they do have in common, apart from the name plate, is the wall with pebbles embedded in cement around the coping stones.

And the cottage we stayed in all those years ago? It's still there - pretty sure it's the one in blue - and still seems to be a holiday let:

Rather than look for Ray's tripod holes - he never seemed to use one anyway so that would have been "pointless" - I used the location for some inspiration and took this pic on the Rollei SL66E.

I saw a different image to this one. I really wanted to shoot from the bottom of the road you can see in the foreground, right up its length to the house at the top. I envisioned a long silvery road, lit up by a stormy sky, punctuated by the building at its end. That would have needed something like a 500mm lens on the SL66E, though, and the longest I have is a 250mm so I had to improvise a bit.

Next visit to the caravan, probably next month, I'll be straight back to Allonby for some good, old walkabout photography. No tripod and big SL66E - just a portable 35mm outfit.

I did take a pic of Hadrian's Wall when I was last down there but you have to look hard to see it. I've been driving down every side road to see what's at the end of it and whether there's an unusual view of the wall. I quite liked the one below which offered a nice compositional trick of an old dry stone dyke leading to Hadrian's Wall running along the top of the hill.

The light was changing all the time as I stood shivering in the cold beside the tripod. Now and again I could see a hill walker or two passing the gap on the left. Eventually, the light and the walkers both arrived at the right time. This was another shot using the SL66E's 250mm Sonnar.

Here's another couple of the wall, both taken on the Konica Hexar AF during our first visit. The first one persuaded me to stop taking the obvious images and look for something a little different. It's OK but I've seen loads of shots like this of the wall and I'm sure you have, too.

The one below has the wall going over the hill-top just to the left of centre but it has the same sort of look to it. That was one of the reasons I took the SL66E with me for the second visit: I thought the square format would force me to look for less obvious compositions instead of the wall coming in from the right or left side of the frame and snaking off into the distance.

Finally, here are a few North Pennine scenes which will give you an idea of the sometimes bleak landscapes you can find there. Personally, I love it but they might be too spartan for some tastes. They were taken on the 250mm Sonnar, the 80mm Planar and the 150mm Sonnar respectively.

I've asked the question often enough before but how do people manage with one lens? The photographs I see come in all shapes and sizes and there's no way I could capture them with just, say, an 80mm lens on the camera. It would certainly make life easier if I could as the SL66E and three or four lenses are a bit of a killer when it comes to carrying them and a tripod over a hill.

I think future trips will involve working with the SL66E out of the back of the car and a nice, light but versatile 35mm outfit when I feel like going for a stroll alongside the wall. Either way, the opportunity to explore an entirely new landscape and one that offers such variety has come at just the right time for me as I was definitely starting to run out of ideas in my own backyard.


Allan Castle said...

Nice photos and I like the article. I always enjoy your articles and it helps explain the thought process of being a photographer.

Herman Sheephouse said...

Welcome back Bruce . . properly!

The permanent tripods cemented into place (sponsored by Gitzo) is a genius idea. And as for the photos, I rather like all of them actually - you've captured the air of out-of-the-way-ness which is an indefinable thing . . and I mean that in a good way.

May your caravan be forever cosy ';0)

Bruce Robbins said...

I'm beginning to suspect that you're sponsored by Gitzo, Phil...

Herman Sheephouse said...

yeah I tried all the others, but they were the only ones who replied . . .

Roy Karlsvik said...

I really like your takes on the wall, Bruce. Not that I've seen "a million" of them anyway, but a few for sure, and you're damn right about people shooting the same bloody photos as everyone else has done. We see the same thing happen over here around my place as well, of course. I've seen your wall a couple of times, but have not even bothered to snap it on film yet. I like the idea of checking the side roads though, and it put me on a thought for a few of the standard shots of the actually great scenes back home. I'll bring the Mamiya RZ67 and a nice couple of lenses and go for a walk some day in the not too distant future, me thinks.
Thanks for the post, and a great set of shots both of the wall and other bits.

DavidM said...

Good stuff again. That SL66 seems to like you.
Interesting to see the changes in Allonby. The famous house has half its famous curve-top wall amputated and the dog and Land Rover have moved away in the other shot. It looks as though the porch(?) on the house has been sacrificed for another room.
There is some justification for returning to familiar scenes. You will have noticed that Northumberland is blessed with rather a lot of weather, of all kinds, and sometimes a familiar scene reveals new things. People never seemed to get bored with snapping Marilyn Monroe and I attribute this entirely to changes in the weather. You never saw Marilyn and a barometer together did you?
I've found that the way to "manage with one lens" is to take only one. After a little while, the eye re-tunes itself. It was one of the exercises that that Ralph Gibson set himself and he seems to have done all right.

Bruce Robbins said...

You must teach me the trick of getting wide angle perspective or the stacking effect from a standard lens. Photographing with one lens is a bit like playing golf with one club: yes, it’s perfectly feasible as long as you don’t mind all your shots looking like a nine iron. As for Gibson, he knew what he was going to be photographing before he left his house - lots of his stuff was stunted - so he took the lens he needed. Wandering about the countryside not having a clue what you’ll stumble upon is a bit different. But I know we’ll never agree on this topic. :)

John Carter said...

Yes, Raymond Moore; I like his photos. I read, maybe from you, that a big chunk of his work is frozen so peons like me can't see it. Sometimes the law should be broken for the good of society. The legislature does that all the time here in California but mostly not for the good of society.

Bruce Robbins said...

The courts in California seem very politicised to me, John. Not sure if politically appointed judges is the best way of working, Unless they’re all conservative, obviously. :)

DavidM said...

Like playing golf with one ball, perhaps?
The idea is that limitation stretches the creative juices. (Although it might lead to mixed metaphors.)
It's possible to regard stacking and the wide angle effect as clich├ęs, rather like the popular Big Stopper effect. Ray Moore, who started all this, seems to have been happy with one lens and a keen eye for much of his work. There is a film of him with a Nikkormat and a 50mm lens, if I remember rightly.
Ralph Gibson limited himself to one focal length and one distance in one exercise.
I'm sure you know all the arguments already.

Bruce Robbins said...

Definitely not one ball. With one ball you can still play all the shots on a golf course (short of slicing it into the North Sea off the first tee) but with one lens there will be certain shots denied to you. If photographic equipment could be distilled down to a standard lens then there would be no need for other focal lengths. Ralph Gibson and others (Ray Moore shot with different lenses and formats) may manage with a standard lens but that just means that they only see photographs with that angle of view, not that it is in any way preferable. And choosing to limit yourself to a single lens can be seen as just as big a cliche or affectation as using perspective effects. There's also the danger that the standard lens gives everything the look of a boring record shot and, if it's on large format, then it's just a high quality, boring record shot. So there!

DavidM said...

So there indeed! That's me told.
I've just realised that while extolling the virtues of the single lens and a sharp eye, I've just packed five and a half lenses in my bag. A large pinch of salt needed.
Do you have a ball each in golf? Footballers have to share one. Would snooker be a more amusing analogy?

David M. said...

I believe that the difficulty with the Ray Moore archive is that his executors don't want it to be fragmented, by selling it off as individual prints. So far, no suitable buyer seems to have come forward. We might ask where the V&A stands, now they have a nice new gallery at the northern end of this island with space to fill and local demand for more photography. There may more to the story than this.

And a modest attempt at placation: I'm not suggesting that anyone should be confined to using one lens, but I do suggest that it's a useful exercise for sharpening the vision. Only every so often, of course.
I myself seem to have a talent for making boring record shots at any focal length.

Bruce Robbins said...

I wonder what the chances would be of getting the V&A interested in Ray Moore’s archive. Imagine if it were permanently based in Dundee along with Joe McKenzie’s archive which is currently with the local council and never sees the light of day. That’s got to be worth pursuing.

No need for placation, though. I like a bit of banter and the free exchange of ideas. It’s definitely the case that there are life-long, one-lens photographers but I just don’t fit into that box. It would be interesting to know why the vision of one and multiple lens practitioners differs so much.

I get the idea of one lens as an exercise - Mike Johnston advocated a one camera, one lens for a whole year approach. Is doing it “every so often” a nod in Ray Moore’s direction?

DavidM said...

It might have been a murmur in that direction.
When it comes to discussing single or multiple lenses, we might be venturing into the parallel world of the enjoyment of kit. That wide-angle is just so very nice...
I like cameras. Not so much the modern hyper-intelligent monsters but ones where you can see the designer's thinking. You can see it in the Nikon F and you can see how the OM1 was made to be different from it. Everybody seems to like wooden cameras and the people who made them are even more evident.
It seems to me that as long as we can keep the two enthusiasms apart, no harm is done. We can be, for instance, a prolific letter-writer and a stamp collector and not confuse the two. Things may be different in golf.