Saturday, 22 October 2011

My six favourite photographs

Photography is one of my passions, and today whilst on a long walk with the dog up Caerphilly Mountain, I stopped at a style that overlooked Cardiff and wished I could master capturing the view. For years I have tried, and I have never quite achieved to replicate the oddly part-picturesque-part-M4-induced-city-scape exactly how I wanted. I will continue to try every time I trample past, but it did make me ponder over what was my actual favourite image of all time.

Growing up, it was press images of sporting moments that captured beautifully split-second action, that got me fascinated photography. The images, perhaps, of Wales scoring a try in a rare victory - they were such exciting photographs -  the excitement in the players' eyes, the mud, the emotion, the faces of the crowds; you could sit and pour over the image and live it for much longer than you could watching the replay endlessly on TV.

As I studied photography more, I saw the power this medium had for letting us concentrate on a split second of time delve deeper than the joys/woes of sport.

But what was my actual favourite image? There are many famous iconic images that I love - or perversely think quite stunning, despite being of a rather uncomfortable subject. My mind is cast immediately back to the horrifying stills of the Hindenberg and Challenger disasters - awful, terrifying, in so many ways - and yet the pin-point capture of the split second detail (the ability of photography itself to capture life and keep it forever) is actually almost poetic. This is something I wrote about in a previous blog post, and gave me much mental turmoil in how much I appreciated the medium's capabilities to preserve such shocking moments. The context of a photograph means more sometimes than the actual aesthetic itself.
I love the photograph of Ieuan Evans on his way to scoring a try against England in 1993, because the occasion meant so much to me at the time. This picture remained on my wall for my entire childhood; it takes me back to the exact moment where I was, the thrill, the excitement.

But choosing my favourite images is a personal preference, just like any favourite list. I can pick images others may think awful, pointless, irrelevant, or just plain ugly. Some may even think distasteful. But the power in the image, just like any art particularly more modern, lies often in the context of the piece; and what we, the viewer, bring to the imagery ourselves.

Just six of my favourite photographs:

This is stuff of dreams and science fiction; and yet, a reality of technological triumph. Simply a great image in so many different ways - not just the contrast of the lights and shadows, the framing and composition; but a symbol of achievement and ambition.

Winogrand. One of my favourite photographers; a great master of street images with an incredible skill for the composition and the commentary of the society at the time. The aesthetic 'third of heads' as I like to call it, with this image is a joy to behold.

There wouldn't have been a Winogrand without a Robert Frank. The iconic street photographer's work was once described as a: "meaningless blur, grain, muddy exposures, drunken horizons and general sloppiness." And it is precisely this what makes his images so wonderfully truthful of life in their very essence. Frank visited Wales and took a series of images of miners and their lives. It is a life now dead and gone.

Ansel Adams. Quite simply a beautiful, utterly incredible, image.

I have no idea who took this photograph, but it is so quintessentially and deliciously Hitchcock - my favourite director of all time.

Andreas Gursky. Architectural abstract images of herculean scale that evoke such impressive wow factor on a visual level, it is almost easy to forget they portray a strong commentary on harsh realities of capitalism and modern life. A photographer who made me interested in the abstract and architecture as photographic themes.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

What I Talk About When I Talk About Love....Running

I love running. No, I LOVE running.

When people hear this or see how enthusiastic I get about running long distances, clocking up the miles early morning, or struggling up a Caerphilly mountain training run, some respond in sheer recoiled horror. I may as well have admitted I enjoy eating puppies for dinner before washing them down with a mug of vinegar once owned by Hitler.

But I genuinely love it. And I wasn't always sure why; until I read Murakami's 'What I Talk About When I Talk About Running' short book; his philosophy on his love of the pursuit. What he writes is essentially this: running is part of what he is. Like an artist's art, or musician's music. Just because it is an exercise (a sport!) makes it no less valuable or trivial to study and philosophise about.

I had always liked sport as a kid. I spent the first 10 years of my life kicking a football against the garage door, winning Wimbledon against the side of the house, and using my mum's hydrangea plant as a scrummaging machine. But my dad used to run. My main memory of him growing up is disappearing off on Sunday morning jaunts, covered in talc and in tiny running vests- returning back sweated and covered in mud.

My dad was a serious runner. He took up road running after he retired from rugby - and transformed from a chunky prop forward into a spindly running waif - clocking up some great times for marathons in the process.

It put it into my head. I wanted to run. The enjoyment didn't come immediately though, mostly because....Running is tough. In fact, it's not just tough, it's cruel, ruthless even. The pain can be great, the fatigue can be destroying; the mental games your body will play can be exhausting alone.

Why put yourself through such pain? Why choose to hurt yourself so? I went through years of stop-start running training. It never lasted. It was like trying to solve world peace - I wanted to, but it's practicalities just seemed too complicated.

It was during a moment of self-discovery where things clicked into place. I was in the worst shape of my life. I had spent my first year away at university slowly suffocating my body with junk and lack of exercise. I felt terrible, both mentally and physically. I came home from my misery, and visited my Nan.

Pain happens to us all, she said suddenly randomly, giving me a hug. None of us can escape pain. You just got to keep moving and not let it ruin things. 

I made a decision. I was going to get fit, I was going to change my attitude, I was going to work hard. And I did. And I barely looked back. When that moment arised where I wanted to quit, I just kept moving - and the sense of achievement of thinking I had beaten the negative, beaten the pain, was incredible. Slowly but surely, things felt easier...better...I was getting fitter, stronger, losing weight. I was sleeping better, sharper mentally. My mood improved. The changes, although took a while, suddenly hit me like a steam train.
I can understand why people don't understand my love. But similarly how some people can't understand why I love it so much, I can't fathom why people love reality tv, rom-coms or junk food and Jeremy Clarkson. It would be boring if we were all the same.

Since I took up serious running (several 10Ks a week) I never looked back. Running has become part of what I am.
Murakami wrote: Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. Not just in running, but in life. Running is my me time; I think, I contemplate, I observe the world around me. I see beautiful landscapes up Caerphilly Mountain; I see foxes and other wildlife carrying about their worlds; I see the light rise; I see the world being. When I go running early in the morning - I feel like the only person alive- the full day lying ahead - all that promise, all that potential, awaiting to be unleashed. You feel alive. Because you are. And I don't want to miss it.

Sunday, 28 August 2011

Celebrity by Awfulness Phenomenon (And how I learnt to stop worrying and love Jan Terri)

When You Tube was in its relative infancy, I stumbled upon a video that made me laugh so much I spilt tea on my keyboard. The late 90s and early years of the new millennium was the beginning of the Internet video cult phenomenon, a time when footage would slip easily through copyrighted nets and the for-father to the iplayer age.

I'd already discovered the power of the internet's time wasting capabilities - hours spent entertaining myself as a student building websites on geocities-  on Bargain Hunt's leathery badger haired David Dickinson; aging ex tennis players and their similarities to various zoo animals (of course my sites were hilarious [sic] and satire witticisms and not just er [sic]). I spent whole evenings looking up 'celebrity' with my flatmates; finding out when I would die on; and conspiracy theories pages with flashing GIFs (the animated GIF - the comic sans of early internet elements - which naturally made any 'fact' seem less credible every time they, well, animated themselves)

But when it came to videos, I was left a bit underwhelmed. I enjoyed watching retro kids tv shows, like the rest of us. But I bored quickly with jackass stylee stunts, and UFO videos that were actually not-so-unidentified after all (It's a cloud dear). 
it was this one particular video that I must have watched hundreds of times. On a random video search for 'something full of comedy value' I found a music video by a singer/songwriter called Jan Terri. And it made me cry with laughter.

Jan Terri. A limo-driver from Chicago. She made two albums in the early nineties that originally gained a small cult following on their VHS releases - already their kitche awfullness attracting fans. But it was the internet that put her into the limelight - well before reality shows were making millions on the unashamed seemingly awful-attempts of people to make it big in the music industry. 

This particular piece is labelled 'The Worst Music Video Ever'. And sadly for Jan, this is possibly true. The camera work would be failed for GCSE media students, wobbling shots and jerky zooms; the choice of scenes a little unimaginative at times - Jan sat in the back of a limo - Jan stood at the water edge in Chicago like a badly-fitted-leather-clad fish out of said water; the man of her affections is like a Steve Coogan spoof-character - a mulletted biker who seems the most unlikely suiter for our dear Jan. Jan herself - frizzy blonde bouffant and dodgy leathers. And the music. Production means Jan manages to sound slightly off-key the entire way through; the synathised  backing sounds relatively prehistoric, and the lyrics deliciously bad 'My heart is open like an open book'....

However. When my original guffawing fits died down, something began to quickly trouble with me. It all seemed, well to me, a bit cruel. Maybe it was my inherent sensitivity to all things nasty (I'm boringly prone to the need for niceness, I must admit) but it all seemed rather unsavoury, like someone had filled the bottom of a lovely chocolate cake with salt icing.

Just as the Internet is so wonderful to spread and share information and creativity and knowledge; it can be equally as successful in sharing and encouraging negativity and cruelty. It is akin to the school bully syndrome. Let's pick on someone a little bit vulnerable, let's all jump on the bandwagon because then it means the bullies won't give their attention to me. 

Part of me actually admired Jan - she had a dream, wrote songs, recorded songs, filmed the videos. She went out there and did it. How many of us sit there dreaming up schemes or plans or wishes - and yet they never leave that initial phase; they never actually materialise into anything more concrete than thin air. But Jan went out and tried something - in an notoriously difficult industry. And are Jan's songs that bad? They're catchy with some nice little riffs. Certainly I would prefer listening to her songs than most Westlife efforts, although that's obviously my personal taste. 

This celebrity-by-awfulness now seems to be an entire business of its own. Reality tv shows combined with the internet give us all the opportunity to show the world what we don't have. TV shows will deliberately put forward bad singers on singing shows, or people who look strange, or have some kind of freak-show-talent - in the hope their terribleness will attract more viewers. You could argue if you put yourself up for this, then you only have yourself to blame, and this of course has elements of truth - but at the same time, it all seems rather exploitative - a patronising view perhaps, but they're making money on deluded dreams, publically making fools of people who perhaps don't know any different. 

In a way, Jan Terri was one of the early internet Celebrities by Awfulness. And in a way, I was almost a little jealous. Envious that she had the courage to go out and just did what she wanted to do. That she created something. Who cares that she didn't make her millions, at least she tried. And I was full of admiration for this, myself guilty in the past of becoming paralysed by the fear of failing. 

Whatever Jan is doing, she had her moment in the sun. Jan wins.

Monday, 20 June 2011

Engulfed in a Sea and Attic

When it comes to literature, I am not usually particularly keen on spin-off books or novels based on classic characters. When I first read Jane Austen as an 11 year old, I was so captivated by the sparkling characters in Pride & Prejudice, so desperate to be part of their lives and learn more, I read a 'sequel' written by a modern writer. It was based on Elizabeth Bennett's married life with Darcy. It was one of the worst pieces of writing I had ever read, even worse than the deliciously awful Point Horror books I use to devour as a sort of pot noodle literature alongside the gourmet Austen.

It was like a bad Hollywood sequel where the actors couldn't act, the director couldn't direct and script was was written with invisible ink on thin air.

So it was with trepidation that I began reading 'Wide Sargasso Sea'. Recommended by a good friend of similar tastes and with whom I trusted with my cultural life, I took it up with the sort of enthusiasm of a child about to ride a bike without stabilisers. I wanted to, but it could hurt.

'Wide Sargasso Sea' was written by Jean Rhys in 1966. The book is regarded as a "parallel novel"; a prequel taking the characters from Charlotte Bronte's classic 'Jane Eyre'. A backdrop of the Caribbean, Rhys muses over the mysterious story before the infamous Rochester and "Bertha" end up in England (and thus, Bronte's novel).
'Jane Eyre' is one of my most sacred books; when I first started reading it for A Level English, I enjoyed it so much I stayed up the whole night to complete it in its entirety, returning to school the next day blurry eyed and accused of being out partying.

Reader, I was worried. Worried, essentially, that 'Wide Sargasso Sea' would fail me. That it would not do justice to the wonderful piece of literature it is affiliated to. I need not have worried. Rhys carves an intrinsically well drawn portrait of racial inequality, an oppressive world of harsh life and not belonging with a postmodern style of switching view point. The setting of the Caribbean is fresh; colloquialisms give the book an original take, and yet it is not a difficult read despite the tragically complex themes and psychological conundrums it deals with - mental health, the theme often tackled with either terror or simply ignored altogether in the hope it'll go away.

Some passages are so heartbreakingly beautiful, so melancholically poignant; you become just as engulfed as 'Bertha' herself. Rhys cleverly fills in gaps of fictional history and yet leaves us with even more question marks hanging solemnly and mystically, over the attic. A classic in itself.

Monday, 14 March 2011

A few of my favourite things....

At a late night post-rugby celebrational conversation on Saturday night mulling over "what is your favourite symphony", it occurred to me that chosing favourites when it comes to music, film, literature, art and culture is indeed, a troublesome task that can cause a lot of in-house conflict.

Deciding on our favourites, our lists of what we consider the best or most enjoyable, seems for so many to define who we are. Author Nick Hornby wrote a book dealing with this very theme; High Fidelity, a tale of man's obsession with lists and favourites.

Essentially, it is trivial. Who cares if we rank Neighbours above Emmerdale, or Quincy above Columbo (even if it is true...) but at the same time, it is always enjoyable sifting through the options. For me, it is akin to solving a crossword puzzle - works the brain, the outcome isn't important, but if you love these things, it is deliciously satisfying to complete.

One area I often ponder is on the subject of music and film, and in particular the cross over of the two. It is through film that my love of music blossomed; an awakening of the cinematic genre brought alongside with it a voyage of musical discovery. I was brought up with little popular culture for reference: a Sgt Pepper's LP, The Yellow Submarine & Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on warped VHS. And The Frog Chorus on a 45.

When I first started studying film, it astounded me how much music enhanced the cinematic experience and vice versa. One director, aside from Hitchcock, Lynch and Kubrick, who I instantly adored was Wes Anderson. Aside from the melancholy; tragi-comic themes and slightly eccentric tones, the main element of why I loved his films so much, were the soundtracks. It was on The Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack where I first heard the haunting sound of beautiful Nick Drake. Anderson's soundtracks are, standalone, musical journeys. They take you back to the film itself, and yet further on again; like the behind the scenes extras on the DVD, only inside your brain and in your bones.

So naturally, despite it meaning nothing, despite my opinion being completely subjective for my personal tastes, and despite it likely to change on my mood; here are my top ten soundtracks.

1. The Royal Tenenbaums
2. Lost In Translation
3. West Side Story
4. The Virgin Suicides
5. Chariots of Fire
6. Taxi Driver
7. The Talented Mr Ripley
8. Mulholland Drive
9. Psycho
10. A Clockwork Orange

And I have to live with myself that I have left out The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins....And Bedknobs & Broomsticks....

Monday, 17 January 2011


Sudden vast beasts wall the scape,
Gone are greens, now reds do drape;
Moist air so still, yet majestic, proud,
Rocky streams gush force and loud.

Bony trees, clawed and long,
Mountain King Peacock struts and strong,
Artery dry stones reach so high,
They pathway up beyond the sky.

The mist above clouds darkened dream,
Crystal water so pure, barely seen,

O now understanding why Eryri gave blame,
Resplendent dramatics inspired Ray of Light, his name.

I wish I was the mist that swirls the air,
I wish I was the peak that towers to dare,
I wish I was the force of beauty that all can see;
I wish I was the feeling of so meant to be.