Changing of the guard

Britain is a pretty unspectacular place. It has no alpine peaks or broad rift valleys, no mighty gorges or thundering cataracts. It is built to really quite a modest scale. And yet with a few unassuming natural endowments, a great deal of time and an unfailing instinct for improvement, the makers of Britain created the most superlatively park-like landscapes, the most orderly cities, the handsomest provincial towns, the jauntiest seaside resorts, the stateliest homes, the most dreamily-spired, cathedral-rich, castle-strewn, abbey-bedecked, folly-scattered, green-wooded, winding-laned, sheep-dotted, plumply hedgerowed, well-tended, sublimely decorated 50,318 square miles the world has ever known – almost none of it undertaken with aesthetics in mind, but all of it adding up to something that is, quite often, perfect. What an achievement that is.

montage1

And if you are thinking that is the most masterful, evocative, and passionate paragraph I have ever written (or, alternatively, overly rose-tinted, nauseating and contentious), then you are just plain wrong. For the always marvellous Bill Bryson had that to say in a Christmas present I bought myself, courtesy of some shady international bank transfer originating in Switzerland. With researcher instinct and the preposterous suggestion that someone might a) read b) notice and c) sue me for breach of copyright, that would be Bryson (2015, p.33).

montage1aNow, back to some original nonsensical drivel, and Christmas in Great Britain finally came and went. Blink and you may have missed it. I think I was part of it – my waistline certainly attests to such – but already it seems a world away. I remember a Christmas jumper and a gargantuan dinner and a predictably endless game of monopoly. I recall a losing battle to eat my way through four types of cheese and multiple slices of ham and final dollops of clotted cream with practically anything. I recollect a Boxing Day trip to Argyle and another success to stay top of the league. This part sounds the most fantastical, and perhaps I really am just dreaming.

montage1bA fond memory persists from Christmas Eve, rain sweeping briskly through to provide a few bright hours pottering in Polperro and tackling a cloying coastal path. Sunlit and sedate, contentedly winding down towards the Christmas weekend, it was all rather lovely. With the addition of a Doom Bar in a low-ceilinged, cosily log-fired, jauntily handsome pub, it delivered a moment to cherish.

I like to think it was quite a feat for me to make it through to Christmas…November and December testing my patience for all things grey and damp. But in reality it was barely a chore. Over almost half a year I came to love the variety, the luxury of choice for walks and wanders near and far. I marvelled in some unseasonable early autumn weather and wallowed in a shifting, fading, tinted landscape. I discovered new wonders like the Jurassic Coast and sublime pockets of South Cornwall and cultural and historical hotspots of London town. I also found comfort in the familiar, the cream teas and BBC and old friends and Plymouth Sound. True, I struggled to adapt to an unending parade of TV soaps (how much Emmerdale does one really need in life?), but became wearily accepting of the indifferent coffee. I adjusted and accepted and it became the norm.

Now things shift back to Australia once more and a counter-adjustment is in flow. No bothersome soaps and plenty of amazing coffee. Warmish temperatures (not that it ever got cold in England), but still some rain. Pitiful ‘Devonshire’ Teas. An absence of a delectable coast path, but a plethora of sweeping bushland trails in its place. Happy reunions proving some compensation for forlorn farewells. A new year commences with a newish start in what feels – at this point – a new place. A novelty that will quell my curiosity for the weeks and months ahead, until England – and its people – comes calling again.

montage2

 

Reference

Bryson, B. (2015). The Road to Little Dribbling. More Notes From a Small Island. London: Transworld Publishers

Great Britain Green Bogey

Neil

Okay, this is not going to be the ultimate in self-absorbed egotism revealing the characteristics and complexities of just one soul among the seven billion on this planet. In fact, it’s not even going to be an analysis of the origins of the name Neil or its equivalents like Niall or Neenoo [1] or, as one Aunt persists in handwritten cards twice a year, Neal. Neither will I look at the many famous Neil’s of popular culture, like Mr Armstrong, Kinnock and the hippy from the Young Ones [2], or linger on the hilarious japes where people might just kneel down after you tell them your name. Instead, in this episode of Neil, I would like to consider the art of getting a picture of oneself, a tenuous link because I am called Neil and when I try to take a picture of myself I am taking a picture of Neil, geddit?

Of course, now I have come to realise that this action has come to be regarded as a ‘selfie’, which is likely to become a ‘selfs’ and then just a general mumble sounding something like ‘sufphs’ as the transformative degeneration of language continues. And I think, well why not, let the young people mess up our language; it’s only fair as we screw over the planet for them, in a period of inaction that will become known as ‘planballs abbottburger’ or something. As long as enough selfies capture the moment the rising sea submerges the Sydney Harbour Bridge everything will be OK.

Anyway, the pictures I want to write about are not really selfies in the take a snap of yourself with a shaving cut in the mirror or the pout from above with bum slightly sticking out sense [3]. They are the pictures you seek at landmarks, on holidays or in situ, usually to prove you are alive / around / doing something far more interesting than anyone else who happens to see it on Facebook. They are the pictures that break up the filmstrip capturing one hundred slightly alternate images of the Eiffel Tower, the poses scattered among five hundred mountain views of the north face of the Eiger. They are the profile pictures and the images that can go on a mother’s day card to say, “hey, look at me, here I am, you love me so much here is a picture of me!” In that respect, they are not much different from selfies.

Like most things in life, I’m generally ambivalent towards having pictures taken of my own image. I possess enough vanity to delete those in which my hair looks too grey, my teeth too crooked, and my breasts too flabby. This is a vetting process that becomes increasingly difficult as hair gets greyer, teeth rot and flab gathers. But still, a picture occasionally emerges in which I think I look quite alright…it may not make one of those stupid exclusive for hot people only dating sites, but it’ll pass and has a pretty background of hills or something. It’s wonderful what an amazingly beautiful backdrop can do to distract from an unflattering gut angle.

So, I don’t really go round seeking shots of myself all of the time. Mostly they are meeting a requirement of proving I am alive and well in a location taking lots of pictures of it. For some reason, the fact that you have one hundred and twenty six pictures of the Statue of Liberty is insufficient to prove you were there; only when you are in front of the camera, thrusting your torch arm in the air like a total pilchard, is the shoot complete and future memories can be safely set in archive.

Of course, a big part of the reason that only a very small proportion of the thousands of photos I have include Neil as a subject is that Neil is usually the artist (in an informal and non-commercial sense) and the scene is the subject. My photography is typically a subjective composition of an objective subject, with the objective being to subject the viewer to experience my subjective position from an objective standpoint. And how can you object to something as straightforward a subject as that? I like to capture the world around me from my perspective, and not so much the perspective of me around the world.

The other obvious limiting factor is that frequently I am taking pictures on my own and thus face the perennial challenge of achieving the successful selfie. A chunky DSLR is far less selfie friendly than a phone, a battle of physiology and technology and art. I find a chunky DSLR often leads to a chunky picture of me. Even a phone picture seems to bring out an extra chin, as if the strain of extending an arm and finding the button to press is all too much for the body and brain to deal with. The use of a timer can be an effective way round this, but this is subject to the hope that the camera will stay level on the rock you have balanced it on and then being able to safely scramble over a yawning gap and on to some crumbling rocks, flatten your hair, and smile in ten seconds. Plus my camera decides it will only allow a ten second time delay if you choose a burst of about 12 pictures, resulting in a comical set of identical but slightly different frames in which I get progressively bemused.

N_burst

There is an unspoken etiquette, typically in such populous spots as lookouts and famous landmarks, in which people will mutually take a photo for one another. Often being alone and with a chunky DSLR I frequently get earmarked for this high pressure task. This shot could make or break their visit; either they will look back at the time they were gorgeously posed over a breathtaking valley or recoil in the moment they looked a right munter with eyes closed around some dark grainy landscape that resembles an abandoned nuclear test site. I quite like the pressure, the chance to fiddle with someone else’s camera briefly, and be a part of their trip for a few seconds. And I don’t mind the reciprocal offers that come back, though invariably my unspoken reaction is of a picture produced that is at best ‘alright’.

Part of the reason that the picture is only ‘alright’ is how Neil ends up looking in it. Not so much in terms of hair greyness or breast flabbiness, but more in the composition and pose. I, of course, would have taken it very differently, and imagined that the big mountain would be to the left and I would feature in the bottom right corner; whereas the result is a close up of me in the middle with an overflowing bin expertly captured in the foreground.

As for the pose, well, this is the biggest dilemma. Open toothy smile, closed smirk, moody sulk? Face on, side on, backside on looking out, down, up, inside out? And what to do with those hands?  In pockets, on hips, defensive balls position as if awaiting a free kick, relaxed down the side, laid back on a wall, aloft in celebration, pointing in the middle distance? My two default poses are arms dangling down looking somewhat artificial and uncomfortable or, particularly in dramatic terrain, spread out wide and accompanied with an open-gaped mouth as if I am about to wail out a big ‘TA DA!’

And so, by a process of elimination it turns out the best way to be able to monitor pose, determine composition and retain control over a picture of Neil is to make use of a mirror. Every accomplished selfie obsessed tweeter knows this. But unlike bathrooms and bedrooms, there is a relative dearth of mirrors at tourist sites and attractions around the world. Occasionally though it’s possible to find some random public artwork or street furniture in the right place at the right time. Like around St Paul’s Cathedral in London town, bedecked in a colourful fury of post-Olympian September sunshine. What more can you ask for than an iconic landmark soaring into blue skies as vivid red London buses swirl around its base intermingling with the green remains of summer. Suddenly the scattering of shiny balls lining the pavements nearby are less a random obstruction and more the ultimately funky selfie mirror. Real but distorted, much like London town itself.

N_selfie2

The issue remains that it’s practically impossible to take a reflected picture like this without the camera getting in the way. Heaven forbid the disaster should the flash also decide to burst forth. I’ve tried moving it from my face and to the side, with haphazard results and a much more convoluted pose. Shooting from the hip is an option, but this looks even more bizarre, bordering on the sickly perverse. In the end, I decided I quite liked a) my face hidden and b) the dominance of the camera itself. For this is how you would typically see me, around St Paul’s, slacking off on a sunny September day. This is me in the moment, doing what I love, doing what so many are doing around me. This is Neenoo, Neal, Neil.


[1] This one comes from the land of my niece

[2] Gosh, there really aren’t that many luminaries with my name hey?

[3] Both of which a former Prime Minister of Australia likely performed

Links

I’m Kevin and I’m here to help you shave: http://au.tv.yahoo.com/sunrise/soapbox/article/-/17945464/kevin-rudd-posts-shaving-selfie/

Planballs Abbottburger?: http://www.crikey.com.au/2013/09/03/direct-action-a-gross-waste-and-abbotts-right-to-cap-its-funding/

Propicfails: http://www.heavy.com/social/2013/03/the-20-worst-profile-picture-fails/

If you are really bovverred: http://snapguide.com/guides/take-good-selfies/

St Paul’s: http://www.stpauls.co.uk/

A to Z Europe Photography Society & Culture