I blinked before she did

I’m not ashamed to admit that The Modern Portrait, the current display at the Scottish National Portrait gallery, had me in tears at lunchtime today.

To explain the effect on me, I could write about each portrait one by one but that would be a long and tedious read. Instead. I’ll write about self-portraits tomorrow, but first, here are a few portraits that stood out for me.

Annie Lennox’s portrait, ‘Annie Lennox OBE (born 1954)’ by Annie Lennox and Allan Martin, is hung at head height. She stares straight ahead, directly at the viewer, with her face nearly filling the frame, white with chalk or clay. The only colour comes from the tartan choker that she wears. For at least five minutes, we were in the unlikely position of staring directly into each other’s eyes with the intense intimacy of mesmerised new lovers.  Of course, I blinked and looked away before she did. It was an unnerving experience. What did she see in me?

‘David Millar (born 1977)’ by Nadar Kandar, is a close-up of a huge face, far larger than life-size, almost confrontational in its proximity to my personal space. Millar was a professional cyclist, banned from cycling after his arrest for the possession of illegal drugs. He lost his world title, but later won medals at the Commonwealth Games in 2010 and is now a cycling journalist. Light glistens on the sweat all over his face, emphasising the stubble on his chin and the pores on his cheeks. There is a grim determination to succeed, not just against competing cyclists but against setbacks and the challenges of public opinion.

Some portraits raise doubts and questions in the viewer, for example the portrait of ‘HM Queen Elizabeth II (born 1926)’ by Julian Calder. The Queen stands beside a stream on a Balmoral hillside, draped in full regalia with trailing gown, and, perhaps not surprisingly, an odd expression on her face. Is this a Photoshopped misadventure in transposition, instantly switching her from the interior of Buckingham Palace to the Scottish hills? The accompanying notes talk of echoing great portraits by Sir Henry Raeburn, but is this admiration, social commentary or political satire?

‘Three Oncologists’ by Ken Currie has been on display in this gallery before, and indeed, may be on permanent display here.  It portrays three surgeons in front of parted curtains with complete darkness beyond. The accompanying notes discuss the surgeons describing their role as “retrieving people from the darkness”, which is a positive description of their pioneering work against cancer and it was this phrase that was the key to adopting this viewpoint. That phrase suggests that the curtains are the moment of death, yet with death in the air, the blurred appearance of the surgeons and the blood on their hands gives the impression of spectral ghouls.

But it was the individual photographs of related people by Taryn Simon that moved me to tears. Carefully sited in the centre of the exhibition, so you pass many others before you arrive at the emotional time-bomb, there are fifty-four identically sized photographs of individual people all seated against the same plain, empty background. These are ordinary people, in everyday clothes, often slouching and looking unhealthy, probably unaware of the poor first impression they make on this first meeting. The natural, unassuming poses are not as stiff as those in formal portraits or as self-conscious as those in self-portraits. Unlike traditional portraits, with their carefully positioned clues in the background, there is no information about these lives. We must take them on face value, but we should remember that their stories are no less profound. The accompanying notes explain that three of these people are triplets, the only known case of triplets affected by Thalidomide.

The name ‘Thalidomide’ still haunts a generation. According to the accompanying notes, there were 10,000 cases world-wide.  The drug was removed from the market in 1961, the year that I was born, so there was still a chance that my mother might have taken it too with similar effects on my body.

Some portraits are almost anonymous, which seems to contradict the fundamental purpose of a portrait. ‘Hope Montagu Douglas Scott’ by William Johnstone has no facial features, just blank flesh inside the clothes, but even more intriguing is ‘Susie Wolff: Portrait of a racing driver’ by Angela Palmer with its mysterious hints that there might be a head, anybody’s head, inside the blue crystal racing helmet, like a person’s identity inhabiting a fragile skull, a ghost in the machine.

My conclusion as I leave the display, is that portraits where the sitter’s eyes aren’t looking straight ahead at the viewer give the impression of shiftiness and unease, perhaps even dishonesty in their refusal to meet my gaze.

The display continues until 21 March 2021, so you’ve plenty of time to get there and see for yourself.

Wednesday, October 30th, 2019 art, Exhibitions No Comments

more dark

It’s taken me a long time to manage another after dark expedition, but I finally managed one. Not surprisingly, it felt unfamiliar, but I enjoyed it. I was pleased with the number of successful shots I achieved and felt encouraged to plan more expeditions around specific themes, but in the meantime here are some of the latest shots:


Saturday, July 22nd, 2017 photography No Comments

a dark rain’s gonna fall – b dylan

With the current thick cloud and heavy rain covering most of the United Kingdom, it’s hard to believe that way back in July 2016, the days and nights weren’t as hot and dry as they may now seem in retrospect. These shots from near midsummer were taken on what began as a dry evening but the rain soon started and rapidly increased. Despite my efforts to protect my camera with an umbrella, there is an obvious progression in the amount of water on the lens, resulting in some unexpected effects and proving that we shouldn’t let rain immediately rule out photography. Please scroll down to the end of the post to see the most extreme example.








Thursday, November 17th, 2016 photography, Uncategorized No Comments

clouds across the moon – the ra band

I’ve been preparing all weekend to photograph the supermoon tonight. I cancelled my practice shots last night because of cloud but the forecast for tonight was for broken cloud with low chance of rain so I was hopeful. But the outturn was a sky completely covered in cloud so I went to bed, planning to try again tomorrow night.
Mandy woke me around midnight to say that the sky was largely clear, and asked if I wanted to get up to try photographing it. My first response was to go back to sleep but then I thought about my refusal to get up out of my sleeping bag in my tent to see the dawn over Ayers Rock back in 1980. Next I remembered how glad I was and have been ever since that my Dad woke me in July 1969 to watch the first moon landing.
So I changed my mind, got up, dressed and went outside to find lots of wispy cloud speeding dramatically in front of the moon. And also discovered that my tripod wouldn’t allow me to tilt the camera steeply enough to capture the moon that high in the sky. It would have been better to catch the moon nearer the horizon, shortly after moonrise, which today was around 16:40. It’s due to set around 06:40 tomorrow (i.e. in about five and a half hours) but I’m not going to wait up that long.
So, it’s back to the option of trying again early tomorrow evening (moonrise around 17:24). At least I got a couple of atrocious handheld shots to establish a rough idea of exposure length – around 1 second, (at f16 on 100 ISO), though the article I’d read online had led me to expect around 1/125 or 1/250 at f11, so I’m regarding tonight’s experience as useful practice.


Tuesday, November 15th, 2016 photography No Comments

progress report 2

We’re over three-quarters of the way through 2016: A Creative Year, and it’s been a long time since my last progress report so here goes:

In March, I increased my working hours so I’ve less time and energy to devote to creative activities.

I recently spent a weekend sorting through the accumulation of stuff in my garden office. It was desperately in need of a clean, but in doing so I found a lot of stuff that I’ve never used so it was time to send it somewhere it could be utilised. I found it hard to get rid of things like sketch pads and paint brushes, that I’d acquired in the hope of achieving some creative dreams, and it was an effort to remind myself that getting rid of them isn’t the same as abandoning those dreams.  Anyway the space is more usable now, even if I’ve still to set up all the equipment again, so that’s a benefit.


In May, I took part in the Duxford Saturday Workshop’s members’ concert. It was an enjoyable day, with several hundred people of all ages performing in their groups, so the primary school corridors were full of people waiting their turn, practicing nervously. The mixed abilities ukulele group played Brain Damage from Dark Side of the  Moon. I’d been careful to practice in good time to warm my fingers up but unfortunately the knuckles of my left hand locked as they sometimes do, so I could only pretend to play along, which was frustrating.

Shortly after the concert, I started attending weekly music therapy sessions at Anglia Ruskin University through Cambridgeshire Music.  This is a fantastic safe environment to explore and experiment, so I’ve tried playing guitar, saxophone, piano accordion, and piano, sometimes solo but sometimes Susan accompanies me on guitar or piano. She’s very talented and can improvise effectively around whatever sounds I’m producing.

As a result of her patience and encouragement I finally bought a guitar, an electro-acoustic Washburn which I practice on at every opportunity. I particularly enjoy it when Susan and I make music together.

With the onset of the new school year, the Duxford Saturday workshops resumed, and adjustments to the timetable meant that I was able to join the beginners’  guitar group as well as return to the mixed abilities ukulele group.

The structure provided by weekly music therapy sessions and Saturday workshops  provides very helpful encouragement to practice, though I find that I’m neglecting the ukulele in favour of the guitar.


I’ve sketched a few times at lunchtime at work. It’s been pleasant but during the summer I spent too long sitting in the direct sun, and fainted on my return to the office.  no painting


I’ve still to complete the god’s view labyrinth sketch but I’ve devoted a lot of time trying to develop a path-following algorithm. I’m tempted to hard-code the sketch by running it once and saving the co-ordinates for the ‘people’ to follow, but that would lose the ability to pick randomly from a set of vector paths representing different labyrinths, so I’m loathe to take that route.


In what I now think of as ‘my ‘other’ job, I’ve been training other people on setting up websites using WordPress, but it’s not creative.


I’ve made several After Dark photography expeditions, exploring the streets of Cambridge city centre at night, which reminds me: I’ve still to post the shots from what I call the Dark Rain expedition.

I still haven’t done any light painting, and I have several other projects I want to try but I’ll keep those to myself for now. Off-camera flash offers a lot of interesting potential.

Friday, October 21st, 2016 coding, creativity, music, photography No Comments

mysterious dark despite a full moon

My most recent after dark expedition followed a day of rain but the evening was dry and unexpectedly(on my part) coincided with a full moon. There were even patches of clear sky, and as the evening wore on the bright moonlight mixed with other light sources to create an interesting jumble of types of light. I wasn’t able to capture the moon in its full glory, which raises questions of how best to achieve that.

I kept to a limited area, covering ground I’d explored on a previous expedition, but I still enjoyed it and saw new aspects. Some narrow spaces managed to escape the bright moonlight and thus retain their mysteriousness.

after_dark-7  after_dark-2  after_dark-1 I was intrigued and amused by some mannequins in the window of Zara that appeared to be folding their arms disdainfully and looking down their noses at me. Perhaps I was subconsciously remembering old episodes of Dr Who, but I also remembered one of my first tasks at The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery was to help to dismantle a display in the decorative arts gallery which involved carrying ‘female’ mannequins. They were awkward to carry without holding them in ‘intimate’ places which I found embarrassing, much to the amusement of the female curator. So my response to the mannequins in Zara was strong, but I was pleased with the resulting shots:

after_dark-5  after_dark-4


Thursday, October 20th, 2016 photography No Comments

sticking point

By writing my recent progress report, I became aware of how little practical activity I’d achieved so far in 2016: a creative year, but I also remembered later that I’d taken some night photographs in Edinburgh recently that I didn’t publish here. For some reason, WordPress always reports an error every time I try to upload a photo from this shoot, but I’ll keep trying.

St Andrews Square was host to an installation by Groupe LAPS called Keyframes. It’s worth following the link to see other versions of this installation. But better still, go and see the installation in situ, it’s there in Edinburgh until 28th March 2016. Each stick figure lights in turn, giving the impression of movement, thussuccessfully combining static sculpture with animation, which, together with the soundtrack, made it an impressive piece.

And following that discovery, I went out on another night photography expedition, and I’m working my way through the resulting images this weekend, so I will post the results soon.



Tuesday, March 8th, 2016 animation, photography, sculpture No Comments

progress report

We’re over half-way through February, so it seems high time for a progress report on 2016: a creative year, so I’ll take a brief look at each area:

Ukulele, guitar

I’ve attended all four sessions of the Duxford community music group in the first half of the spring term, and the list of pieces to practice has grown each week. During this current half-term break, I’m concentrating on Frere Jaques, Everything Stops For Tea, Messing About on the River, 12 Bar Blues, and Brain Damage (yes, the Pink Floyd track from Dark Side of the Moon). It’s good to have a variety of numbers to focus on, but this has distracted me from  following the programme of exercises in Ukulele Aerobics by Johnson Chad.

On a more practical and slightly more public note, I’ve accepted an offer from one of the volunteers in the Cambourne Timebank scheme to help me develop my ukulele and guitar playing. We’ve provisionally arranged to hold our first session one evening this week.


The nights are still long so it’s a good time of year for low-light photography, but, although it’s been a relatively mild winter so far, I find it too cold to go out taking photographs without a specific event to reach, so I keep postponing my tentatively-planned expeditions. I got as far as buying two small torches for light painting but haven’t used them yet. Instead, I’ve read two of my photography books on using off-camera flash guns: Studio Lighting Unplugged by Rod and Robin Deutschman and Speedliter’s Handbook by Syl Arena. Yes, I know that reading about something isn’t the same as actually doing it, but I’ve hardly used my flash gun and feel very unprepared to start using this versatile piece of equipment without a lot of guided practice and experiment.


I seem to be bombarded with ideas for coding projects. Everywhere I go, I want to create a code version. The latest two ideas are: a drawing programme with a kaleidoscope feature, based on an exhibit at the Camera Obscura World of Illusions in Edinburgh that Mandy and I visited last week. Mandy found it very therapeutic, so a browser-based sketch written in p5.js seemed a perfect way to create one for her.

The second recent idea is a representation of a visual metaphor used in The Brain with Brian Eagleman, a documentary series currently showing on BBC. The metaphor was to illustrate the impact of multiple minute differences, and consisted of a box with several rows of mousetraps, each primed with a table tennis ball. Brian dropped another table tennis ball into the box which triggered a mousetrap into releasing its ball which then flew up then landed on another trap which then released its ball. Within seconds the box was full of colliding balls all landing on traps and releasing yet more balls. It seemed a perfect opportunity for some OOPs coding, but I’m daunted by the idea of trying to simulate the physics of spinning balls. This calls for a simplification.

Drawing and painting

No activity to report.


I’ve offered to help Laura, the organiser of Cambourne Timebank to set up a website for the scheme, and to illustrate the scheme by taking photographs and editing a video of activities.

In conclusion, I have achieved little finished output for the first seven weeks of 2016, but I have plenty of material to work on in the coming weeks. To keep myself on track, I need a thorough review and overhaul of my Trello board dedicated to 2016: a creative year.


Saturday, February 20th, 2016 coding, creativity, music, photography 2 Comments

thirstquenchin’ acetastin’ motivatin’ goodbuzzin’ cooltalkin’ finger-pickin’ g-chords

This morning saw the first major step of 2016-a creative year: I went to my first Saturday music workshop in Duxford. The ukulele section was a small friendly bunch, led by Martyn who also leads the guitar group. There was a small bit of chord theory, playing groups of chords in particular keys, followed by introductory finger-picking which revealed my poor technique of holding chord shapes whereby my fingers are resting on other strings. So, as a result, and as I  suspected, I now have a lot to focus on in my practice.

But I will press on, undaunted, and keep pickin’ those fingers and honin’ those 12 bar blues as well as jumpin’ Jack Flash which are my first targets.


Saturday, January 9th, 2016 music No Comments

a creative year

I’m giving 2016 a theme: a creative year. My focus for the year is to: develop creative skills.

I’n recent months, I’ve posted the results of my night photography expeditions, and I plan to continue these, branching into experiments with light painting.  In addition to photography, I’m keen to extend my ukulele playing, and I’ve arranged to start in a community music workshop that meets on Saturday mornings in Duxford. I’m also looking at other creative skills: drawing, painting and coding.

Prompted by a post on the Trello blog, I’ve created a Trello board for specific goals and tasks to help me focus on developing these creative skills.

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Thursday, January 7th, 2016 coding, creativity, drawing, music, photography 1 Comment