Sunday, 23 April 2017

Following Frances

South Donegal was basking in spring sunshine earlier this week. I was spending a few days staying on St John's Point, researching a new photography/writing/family history project, trying to see if it's feasible and setting some parameters for how it might work. 

I suspect that bad weather would have put me off the whole thing, but the lovely light and warmth (well, comparative warmth - I took off my puffa jacket but kept my Aran jumper on), and the way that everything seemed to come together as I travelled, convinced me that this is going to be a good thing to do.

So I got back home all fired up and sorted out the domain name for the website where I plan to keep my work. I'll share the start of it with you here too.

My project is called Following Frances.

Frances McCrea was my great-grandmother, born in north Fermanagh in 1869. In many ways she was an ordinary woman of her time and place, but what makes her life particularly interesting is the extent to which she moved around the north of Ireland, because of her husband's work as a Methodist minister. She lived in eighteen different towns during her seventy-seven years, from Ardara in the west to Glastry in the east, north to Magherafelt and south to Ballybay.

I know quite a lot about much of this time because of the memoir written by her eldest daughter, my granny, Nora. As Nora tells the story of her own life, Frances is always there too, a figure taken for granted at first and later, as Nora becomes older, acquiring a clearer character of her own.

There's also a document written by one of Frances's own brothers, Alexander McCrea, which includes a description of their childhood in Gortnagullion, County Fermanagh. They lived, with their parents and fourteen (yes!) siblings, in a house which my cousin Janet and I located a couple of years ago, derelict but still standing.

What I plan to do is to follow the route of Frances's life. I will visit, in the correct order, each of the places in which she lived. I'll try to find her house. If there's a church to which she was connected, I'll visit that too. I'll take photographs of the place, trying to explore it through her eyes. I'll collect a few small items that come across my path and have relevance to her story. I'll make sound recordings. I'll also try to travel the route she would have taken to her next home.

This is a big project. The geographical area to be covered is manageable, but there will be a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, and I'll be taking small, country roads where I can. That will be slow, but more interesting than just speeding down the M1. It'll take months to complete the whole journey.

It's also quite vague at this point. I don't know where all the houses are. I don't know if it will be possible to visit the ones which I can locate. I don't know if I'll find interesting things to collect. I'd like to write, but I'm not sure yet exactly what - perhaps poetry, perhaps tiny stories, about the places and memories I come across. Perhaps I can create videos or AVs reflecting what I find. I'll work it out as I travel.

But there's plenty of beautiful potential here.

I chose to visit south Donegal for my exploratory trip because Frances lived in both Ardara and Dunkineely, and Nora wrote a considerable amount about this time. I started in Dunkineely, visiting the old Methodist manse, which is now a community centre. The guys working there kindly let me wander the house and garden, taking in all that has changed, but also finding some things that were there a hundred years ago.

Nora writes about the lords of the manor who lived next door. The father of this family was Hamilton Frederick Stuart Goold-Verschoyle, JP. Frances's children played with his daughters Sheila (read more about her fascinating life here, and I've just ordered Dermot Bolger's novel) and Eileen. The family is long gone, but the house was saved from dereliction by the current owner. I met him stepping across the road to buy his paper and we had a long chat about times gone by and the Dunkineely of today.

I went on to Ardara and out along Loughros Point, which plays a big role in Nora's memories of that time. I walked beaches which Frances knew, enjoyed views with which she must have been familiar, watched the lambs jumping about in the fields just as they did then. Homemade bread and a cup of tea in Charlie's West End Cafe were all I needed to keep me going after my massive breakfast fry-up.

I drove back over the hill to Dunkineely, following the route Frances's family took - me in my elderly Micra (and it strikes me how much cooler the project would be if I owned some unique vintage vehicle in which to follow the route), the family in two borrowed carriages, with the luggage behind in a convoy of carts. A light rain began to fall. I imagined how it must have felt, keeping the five children in order, wondering what the next home would hold, hoping everything in the carts had been packed carefully enough, missing friends already, looking ahead with a mixture of optimism and stoicism.

It was an exhilarating couple of days. A blend of detective work, open-minded wandering, meeting interesting people, landscape and detail photography, fresh air, western sunshine and drizzle, it made me think, Yeah. Do this.

You can follow my project, if you like, at - there's only a homepage there so far, and it won't look right on your phone yet, but I'll build it up gradually. 

And so it begins.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Back in the Burgh

It's the midpoint of my Easter holidays, and so far I have achieved an impressive number of hours sprawling on my parents' really very trendy Ercol sofa, the completion of several young adult novels on my Kindle, a successful attempt at selling some antique boots back to the shop in which I bought them, and a slight reduction in the dark greyness of the bags under my eyes.

This is all good. By the end of last term I had been at the stage of watching my pupils' bemused faces as I attempted vainly to explain concepts to them while words and sentences and general common sense escaped me entirely. My only consolation was that if this was confusing them, then there must have been times in days gone by when I was able to talk in an intelligible fashion.

So getting on a plane and spending a few days doing very little in the cleanest house I ever visit has been the perfect break. I don't feel terribly articulate as yet, but I certainly feel relaxed.

Our day out in Aldeburgh helped with that. It's a place where the beach walking is so refreshing, the old boats are so cool, and the fish and chips are so good - and I speak as an ex-professional fish-and-chip worker - that you always come away with a spring in your step.

I fly home tomorrow and head straight for Donegal, where I'll be making plans for what could be the most exciting photo project ever, or else an abject failure. More of that anon.....

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Giant country

We've had a few weeks now of clouds custom-designed for photography. My perception of a nice day has shifted slightly - my heart beats a bit faster when I see "partly cloudy" on my weather app. If that happens at the weekend - bliss. 

These images, as many of you will recognise, are from the foothills of the Mournes, up above Kilkeel, where I'd been seeking accidental sculptures in the harbour. 

I spent a while just sitting on the wall and watching the clouds scudding by. It's a peaceful thing to do. I took a couple of dozen shots before my stomach required me to drive on to Dundrum and eat mussels at the Mourne Seafood Restaurant.

I've processed these ones using a new workflow that I stumbled upon accidentally - I think it works well for the colours of an Irish landscape. For each of these, I've used Lightroom, first converting to black and white, then editing them in mono, adjusting the black and white colour balance, managing the levels, adding plenty of graduated and radial filters, especially amongst the clouds. When I'm happy with the strong, contrasty black and white image, I copy it and convert it back into colour. Then I desaturate the colours that are now too strong, leaving a nice, slightly muted, vintage-style palette which still benefits from the strength of the black and white edit. 

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Change the lens

Sometimes you have to stop looking at things in too much detail and give some thought to the big picture. That is all.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Tyrone shadows

The March sun,
Ancient as paradise,
Though some would reckon it a scant six thousand years,
Casts long shadows.

Window frames, curtains, the odd boot or potato,
Anything near the light
Or close to the ground
Is chased across the boards.

Myself, a headless Giacometti
On the cobbles.
That can't be good
This side of Fairy Water.

It's been a week and a half this week.
Shadows, mine and ours
Gathered in a heavy bundle.
I test them on my heart.

A burden,
A bogside box,
A bloodied bridge,
A small and sharp betrayal,

Drawn out,
Longer than they should be, 
Their bitter edges 
Block the light.

In this place,
Where shadows print six thousand years of stains,
Beware the sun.
The dark shades sting.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Girls on film

It's a drear Belfast Sunday and I'm nursing the tail end of a horrible headache. Not the type caused by riotous living. The most riotous I get during term time is eating an extra Wispa and dancing round the living room to Deacon Blue, or Hamilton if I'm feeling super modern. No, this is more of a too much marking and waking in the middle of the night to worry about the GCSE controlled assessment sort of headache. Average March life in this job.

But enough of headache types! I'm off to a day-long portrait photography workshop, and I'm determined to learn as much as I can, so I drink a lot of water, dose up on paracetamol with caffeine and drive to Conway Mill, where lovely encouraging Ross McKelvey will be teaching us today.

It's a gorgeous building, shot through with beams of natural light, intensifying as the sun comes out later. Most of our work, though, is done with studio lighting, which is my biggest learning curve of the day. Lighting is everything. Like, actually everything.

Models Amber and Melissa arrive, looking like normal pretty girls until, with Stephanie's beautiful make-up and through a lens, they're revealed as super-symmetrical goddesses who have been sculpted into being by Rodin or Bernini, where most of the rest of us were created in the P1 play-dough tray, lovable but slightly squished. 

There's a great feeling of camaraderie amongst us students as we take our turns shooting each model. We're eliciting our chosen poses, but as the shutters click, the girls change expression, adjust angles, fine-tune lines in a seamless, elegant flow. It's hard work for them and they are exceptionally patient.

Standing back to observe, checking our own work and seeing what our colleagues are producing gives perspective, and I'm learning how I want my light to fall, what details to check in the pose and which looks resonate. We've been so well taught that, basically, every shot turns out well, leaving us space to consider the fine details. At the end of the day I have dozens of gorgeous shots.

I have also learned that:

  • Lighting is, yeah, everything.
  • And natural light works too, but it's harder to manage.
  • Professional models are worth every penny. (Though I'm still casting round in my mind for relatives and acquaintances who may turn out to have professionally sculpted faces and might be enticed to turn out for a shoot....)
  • Hands can look awkward very easily.
  • The lines of an outfit are key. Fashion isn't important. Unless, presumably, it's an actual fashion shoot.
  • Watching and listening all the time yields all sorts of vital information.
  • This is fun. I'll be planning some more portrait work of my own over the next couple of months.

I drive home through a rather brighter Belfast and dance round the living room a bit with my Wispa.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Twenty minutes

Twenty minutes. Last night at Ballyhenry Bay, Strangford Lough.

It was totally heart-warming to see such glorious spring light, after a few hours of dodging rainstorms round the tip of the peninsula.

It only occurred to me as I started editing the shots that it would be interesting to show how the light on this particular view changed during the twenty minutes that I spent beside Ballyhenry Island. I wish I'd thought of it at the time and framed each shot exactly the same.

I'm shooting straight into the setting sun, so there are lots of burnt-out patches and flashes of lens flare, but the series makes me happy.

So does this fellow....

...who was perched on the edge of the deck until the final two shots.