After days of heavy rains and dark, grey skies, for a few hours the sun started to peek out from behind the clouds, illuminating the autumn colours on the trees. Dad and I paused by Saint Cyprian’s in Lenzie – framed by the trees and their changing colours, with the autumnal light on the old stone of the 1873 church it was a rather beautiful scene.
The spire on Saint Cyprian’s boasts some handsome gargoyles at the top (if you are wondering about the difference, while gargoyles and grotesques are both sculpted forms of monsters, odd beasts or humans and have symbolic meaning, the grotesques are non-functional, purely decorative, while gargoyles contain water spouts for drainage, usually from the mouth).
Despite some sudden bursts of very fine weather, summer is most certainly giving ground to the approach of autumn here now. Even if we get a warm, sunny day, the shadows are longer, and the sun sets earlier each evening, and when it does the temperature drops a lot quicker than it did in the middle of summer, while the early mornings are noticably cooler. But the light, on a sunny day at least, is now moving towards that glorious golden quality, while the leaves are turning on the trees, right now at that beautiful mix of still some leafy green mixed with increasing golds, reds and browns, and every day there are more fallen leaves along the pavements (yes, I have indulged in my first kicking a pile of dry autumn leaves into the air of the year, it has to be done).
The chestnuts are now large on the old tree leaning over the wall of the nearby boneyard, the boughs heavy, the conkers about to fall to the ground below (sadly the days when schoolkids grabbed them to play conkers with seems to be long gone, but it’s still nice to see this annual sight).
Autumnal apples approaching full size, hanging over a garden wall on my route home from work, sparking a sudden childish desire to go scrumping. And yes, I did say that partly because I wanted an excuse to use the word “scrumping”. As ever, click on the pics to see the lager versions on my Flickr site.
The last couple of months have seen the usual yearly increase in wildlife along the Union Canal, not far from my flat in Edinburgh. Ducks with fluffy wee ducklings, the Moorhens and their little chicks calling to them among the reeds, and of course our resident breeding mute swan couple who have been on this stretch for some years now, with their 2021 brood of cygnets, which have gone from smaller than my hand a few months ago to almost as big as Mama Swan now. As ever click the pics to see the larger sized versions on the Woolamaloo Flickr page.
It’s rather wonderful to have all this, right in the heart of a major city, we’re very, very fortunate to have it on our doorsteps, little slices of natural beauty in the middle of the urban jungle, a once polluted, dirty, industrial waterway now home to pleasure craft, houseboats and a great refuge for wildlife.
Of course, all this wildlife attracts the attention of the local apex predators!
And naturally it is a great place for Edinburgh citizens to enjoy a stroll by the water and to see the wildlife (always makes my day a little better to see the swans and ducks and their young). Some don’t even just stroll by the water – this chap stretched out in his canoe and let it idly drift while he snoozed happily in the warm sunshine!
Others prefer to walk, cycle, or run alongside the canal, or simply sit by it in the sunlight, or read. I like to walk along to the floating cafe-barge, The Watershed, and get a coffee and flapjack there, sit by their open air tables by the water with my latte and a book before walking home. Great stretch for a wee promenade.
I can teach you to skateboard!!! I love the look of joy on their faces.
Pause the walk for a rest and coffee and a read at The Watershed, the floating cafe-barge by the old Leamington Lift Bridge.
On my Twitter feed I often have a look through my huge Flickr archive of photos to see if I took any photos on this day in previous years, and tweet a few of them. Today I noticed the ones I took on 21st March 2020, a year ago today. I was coming home from visiting a friend on the other side of town; we both knew the Lockdown was coming very soon (it was announced just a couple of days later) and this might be our last chance for a visit for a good while (we had no idea then just quite how long, of course, none of us did, we were all still thinking a few weeks, a couple of months perhaps).
It was around ten or eleven on a Saturday night as I crossed Lothian Road near the Filmhouse. This area is full of restaurants, bars, cinemas and theatres, and so you can imagine on a Saturday evening it is extremely loud and busy. And here it was all but deserted, a couple waiting for a bus and that was it. The Lockdown hadn’t quite started, but the bars, restaurants, cinemas and theatres had all already closed; continental Europe was being ravaged by Covid-19 and cases were climbing alarmingly here. People were scared, streets were empty, places closing; the storm was about to break over us.
It was disturbing to see my city so empty of people on a Saturday night; it was just a preview of what was coming over the next few months. Lockdown hit two days later, we left our bookshop wondering when we would be back, when we would see one another again, when we would be able to see our friends and family again now everything was closed and travel not allowed. We were thinking some weeks, perhaps a couple of months, nobody had any idea just how bad it would be and how long it would keep going for. Over the next few months on furlough I walked the streets of my beloved Edinburgh, and as always my camera went where I did, documenting this strangest time in the city.
On a sunny Easter bank holiday weekend, when the city should have been bursting at the seams with tourists I could stand in the middle of the Royal Mile, devoid of people and traffic, to take pictures, I saw perhaps three or four people on the Esplanade in front of the Castle where normally it would be packed with tourists. It was beyond disturbing, unsettling to walk around this magnificent, old city and see hardly a soul, the very occasional bus going by almost empty. Sounds like the footsteps of the postie delivering mail became a source of reassurance, that some normality still existed. I could hear the music from 28 Days later in my head as I walked through utterly empty Old Town streets, my city, like others all round the entire world, was a ghost town. I’ve seen more people around the town at 4am walking home from the film festival than I did on those strange, spring days…
As I write this a year on we’re still in a second Lockdown after another wave of infections, although the vaccine roll out is giving some hope, and restrictions should slowly ease next month. But in Europe many are experiencing a third wave of infection and the worry is that we may too (as spring weather returned last week I saw large groups of students gathering in the Meadows, flagrantly breaking the Covid restrictions on numbers and distancing, which fills me with anxiety as this is the sort of thing that can lead to more spikes in cases).
We’re now in a very strange mix of fear and hope; it must be a cousin to the strange morass of conflicting feelings those who endured the last war felt. I want to do normal things again. I want to hang out with my friends. I want to sit in a cinema, a pub. I want to be able to go home and see my dad. And we’re all in the same boat.
Please keep washing your hands and wear a mask and distance. And don’t dare tell me that doing that infringes your “freedom”. It doesn’t, this isn’t about you and your selfish needs if you think that way, this is about trying to protect everyone around us, our friends, families and communities: you wear a mask to help protect everyone around you; do your bit. We will get through it.
Looking back through my ever-expanding Flickr uploads (now approaching 22, 000 photos), as usual around this time of year I am picking out some of my favourite photos I snapped this year. Of course I didn’t realise that I would spend so many long, long months in Lockdown, walking alone through almost empty streets of my city. I’ve always enjoyed trying to document life and events through the lens, but in this year of Covid and enforced isolation the camera became part of my coping mechanism for the tedious days after days of Lockdown and Furlough, allowed out the house just once a day, everywhere closed, so few people to see and when you did you all tried to keep your distance (and the even longer months of not being able to see family and friends).
Of course I still documented it – from empty streets in Edinburgh’s Old Town (so disturbing – in a city suffering an overload of tourism, suddenly we were deserted, the Castle Esplanade, Grassmarket, Royal Mile on a sunny Easter holiday weekend, barely a soul to be seen), to exhausted cycle couriers (often the main part of the now limited road traffic during the Lockdown months) to masked and socially distancing people. It was all upsetting, disturbing, depressing, stressful, frightening, and the fact we were all so isolated made it harder to deal with, so again the photography helped me process it.
Misty evening in Edinburgh, as the haar settled across the city at night, like a soft, grey blanket. I do love when the mist covers Edinburgh, especially at night – something about the way it softens the city, makes everything diffused, and the streetlights glow through the fog.
Helmut Newton: the Bad and the Beautiful,
Directed by Gero Von Boehm
Blue Finch Releasing
“A lot of the men told me they were afraid, the girls look down on the man who is looking at them.”
Helmut Newton, who passed away in 2004, was one of the most famous photographers in the world, especially in the realm of fashion photography. He was also often very controversial, not least for his very stylised nude images of women. For some they were the height of misogyny, the photographer arranging women’s bodies in a style and pose that fitted some mental image he had, indulging his own inner fetish of how an idealised female form should be, the models denuded, not only of clothes but personality, becoming like artfully arranged mannequins for his camera & mind.
But for others he created images of very strong women, often sexually imposing – as the quote by Newton himself at the top of this piece indicates, in many poses, despite being naked ostensibly for the “male gaze”, the women strike such a powerful pose, often shot from a low angle so they seem to be looking down at the viewer, their physique idealised, and powerful (like a cross between Classic Greek statuary and the idealised athletic bodies Leni Riefenstahl filmed in the 30s), in a manner which could intimidate the viewer. In some ways they look more as if they are the ones in the position of power, quite assured of their own place, tolerating the gaze of the viewer, not at the mercy of it.
Some of this is corroborated by the many famous “talking heads” included in Von Boehm’s documentary, which includes his wife (and sometimes model and fellow photographer) June Newton, Grace Jones, Charlotte Rampling, Isabella Rossellini, Anna Wintour, Claudia Schiffer, Marianne Faithfull and more. Rossellini, who was first photographed by Newton with David Lynch during the Blue Velvet shoot, noted he posed her with the famous director almost like a puppet that Lynch was moving as he wanted it to move, which, as she adds, in a way is partly the actor-director relationship so it worked quite well. Charlotte Rampling commented that he could be provocative, but that can be a good thing as she thinks the world needs a little provocation from time to time, especially in the arts, as it stimulates thought and discussion.
The formidable Grace Jones laughingly recalled him dismissing her at first because her breasts weren’t large enough (which rather adds to those arguing he was a misogynist who saw women as objects for his imagination and lens), but he eventually did make a pretty remarkable sequence of photos with her, notably some with actor Rolph Lundgren, which remain pretty striking. These included some interestingly posed nudes with the pair looking almost sculpted, one with Grace, already a tall and pretty striking looking woman as we all know, looking even taller and more imposing as she stand nude in a high position in a truck looking down on Lundgren (and by extension the viewer). “He was a little bit perverted. But so am I, so it’s okay,” Jones added, with a huge laugh.
The film does not ignore his detractors, however – for instance there is a fascinating clip from a 1970s French talk show with Newton and Susan Sontag, where she says that she quite likes him personally, but she has great problems with his work, and considers it to be strongly misogynistic. Newton replies (also in French) that he cannot be a misogynist as he loves women more than anything else in the world. Sontag fixes him with a look and coolly responds that she has heard so many misogynists make exactly that claim that they love women, with the inference being that no, what they really love is their own, internal, idealised version of what they want a woman to be.
There are other moments that show a sly sense of humour – he offers, for instance, to do a portrait shot of French politician Jean-Marie LePen. Who is of course flattered the world famous photographer wishes to do his portrait. Why does Newton – who was a child in Germany during the rise of the Nazis – want to take a portrait of this far-right fascistic politician? Well it turns out he does a lovely portrait, suggesting LePen bring his beloved dogs into the picture – LePen unaware that Newton is quite deliberately styling this portrait of the French far-right politician to look like a famous portrait of Adolf Hitler with his dogs. By the time LePen realises he has been played and the image criticizes and pastiches him and his lamentable politics it is too late and it has gone to press.
Other subjects discuss his work in terms of time and place, especially the 1980s fashion world, where his style of photographing women coincided with the rise of designers like Karl Lagerfeld, their fashions and the stylistic approach of his camera working well together. Other more personal moments reveal the person behind the lens, away from his “perfect”, idealised model imagery, his wife June recalls him taking his camera to visit her in hospital, but knowing this was a coping mechanism, that having the camera there helped him mediate the terror of seeing a loved one ill and in hospital, gave him something to cling to, some structure, a little control
It’s a fascinating documentary of an iconic twentieth century photographer; where you may fall on the discussion over celebrating or exploiting women in his imagery is a debate that I suspect will long continue, and as the documentary shows, those who knew him best, those who worked with him, have different opinions themselves on this issue. What the documentary does well is to show his work, place it in some context both of its time and of his life and influences, and to explore these different views of his work, while also showing that we are talking not just about these issues but about a person and their life, with all the complexities that entails.
Helmut Newton: the Bad and the Beautiful comes out via Blue Finch Releasing in Curzon Home Cinema and Digital Download from October 23rd. This review was originally penned for Live For Films.