As I don’t like it

Bedridden after a bout of food poisoning. The internal keelhauling has stopped. The afterpain has not. Too weak to talk for 36 hours. All sorts of arrangements disrupted. Flights cancelled. Hotels cancelled. No question of ‘the show must go on‘. Times like this remind us of our frailty and our vulnerability. I remember watching my mother in her last 18 days and how she drifted and slowly ebbed first into a coma and then finally to whatever lies beyond. How quickly we can swing between our ‘true’ man age and the poles of infancy and dying. How right was Shakespeare. Read it, do:

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;
And then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

I suspect I am Justice morphing into Pantaloon. But yesterday I was the Infant.

Now I am clawing my way back to normality. A little time to read, rest, write and watch the rain slap the windows. I can watch the sea from my bed but no boats are out just now. To quote the excellent HK Observatory:

The Strong Wind Signal, No. 3 is in force.

This means that winds with mean speeds of 41 to 62 kilometres per hour are expected. Since seas are very rough, you are advised to stay away from the shoreline and not to engage in water sports.

Sage advice indeed. I like watching the ruffled waves. No ‘white horses’ here. We are shielded by the islands. But the sound of the blowing wind is strangely calming to me. I like the sound. Provided I am inside. The bushes stretching to touch the paths and the palms whipping around with each gust. The yoga-like flexibility of nature. And I can finish off a photo or two. On Saturday I went to one of the nearby deserted islands, Yim Tin Tsai. There is so much to photograph here. I particularly like the derelict buildings. Here are two close ups and a view of the island from the jetty.

Note how shallow the DoF is at F1.4. The door is taken with a 50mm lens (not wide open) and the window with a 24mm lens, wide open. And finally the island itself. The building in the fore left is obviously being renovated. St. Joseph’s church overlooks the landing point and mid-right is the kiosk, where at weekends you can buy a refreshing oolong tea. The blue sky is by appointment only.

That’s it folks……….

The Art of Coarse Photography

The Art of Coarse (fill in your own blank) was an amusing series of books aimed largely at the amateur sportsman. It purported to be an instruction manual for the less accomplished to hold themselves out as expert. I suspect it would be regarded as a precursor to “The Bluffers Guide to….“. I have a sense that there has never been a book on Coarse Photography although doubtless there have been many thousands of Photography Course books. I think I need one.

A charming but seemingly humourless Swede has taken against a comment I made in a forum about film having more soul than digital. I should have realized that the Bjorn Borg of photography would immediately seize upon this as an opportunity to embark on a metaphysical debate.  However perhaps there is a need for some rules around the sport of photography. What are the clichés that rule the game we play or art we pursue? Did the tennis of Maria Bueno have more soul than that of Serena Williams and Rod Laver’s backhand more than Jimmy Connors? (In case you are in doubt, the answer is yes to both).

The Swede’s starting (and finishing) point is that the camera is a tool. That is it. Any soul comes from the individual. And he denies the existence of the soul. End of story. So that is rule number one – the camera is simply a tool to allow the desired amount of light to strike the film or sensor. You decide how long the aperture should stay open, how wide an aperture you wish to use and what speed ISO to use. Pretty simple really, isn’t it.

It doesn’t really matter whether you are using a Hasselblad or a Brownie Cresta 3. Its the photographer that counts. I have a lot of sympathy with that, to be honest. I saw some images on Flickr recently that really made me look twice – fascinating shots of Hong Kong. Quite different from the usual clinical images of The Bank of China Tower or The Star Ferry. Had I looked closely I would have noticed that they were taken with an iPhone. Not even an iPhone 4 but, heavens above, an iPhone 3. How retro can you get. And the processing was done with a $0.99 app. Hmmm. Sling out the Noctilux and the M bodies, here comes the era of the iPhone. I left a short comment, complimenting the photographer and asking how we achieved the effect. He duly explained and that is how I came to  learn of such modern sorcery.

But let’s get back to the source of the spat. I actually googled Swedish philosophers. Wikipedia listed 29, none of whom I am familiar with. So let’s call my antagonist Noggin. Our secular humanist asserts (is that a recognized philosophical term?) that film and digital are uniform and only the creator (with a small ‘C’) of the image adds anything beyond the mechanistic process. I am afraid I still beg to differ. I can even argue that the choice of film is an artistic decision in its own right. I get a very different result if I use  Tmax 400 rather than Velvia. For a start I chose black and white over colour. Now I could of course take the colour transparency, scan it, process it in Silver Efex Pro, use the T max 400 template and hey presto, I have the digital black and white offspring of a colour saturated dia film.

If though I stick to my chosen film and process it normally the digital representation on my screen will still look very different from something taken with the latest over-hyped mini computer. I confess to having fallen prey to the most recent hype and I do own a Fuji X100. But although it does have a remarkably good high ISO output the images still look very cool and clinical to me. Not a bit like film. So whilst I understand Noggin’s general thrust I do find a soul in film that I miss in digital.

Now I am sure that what Noggin was getting at is that a good or even great photographer can produce breathtaking images with pretty much any camera. I am sure Henri would have found it  much easier to capture the decisive moment with a LX5 or an X1. And whether I have an M9 or a Hasselblad or indeed an iPhone 3 I am not going to take pictures like Henri, or Ansel or Steve. My picture of Sai Kung girl isn’t going to captivate the world like Afghan Girl. And rightly so. My chances of taking an iconic image are minuscule, even if I live my 3 score years and ten. On that point Noggin and I doubtless agree. I will always be Thor Nogson to Noggin.

So let’s finish with rule 2 in a series of 2. It is the photographer that counts. But I am afraid that Noggin’s attempt to convince me that Pablo’s work was entirely independent of the brushes he used has failed. There is an old joke about a man who owned a Rembrandt and a Stradivarius. Unfortunately Rembrandt made lousy violins and Strad couldn’t paint to save his life. I think Picasso should have stuck to the Cello like Casals. And I don’t mean Rosie.

Feel free to add your own rules.

And this weeks finale poses the question: which is real and which is Memorex? Or M3 versus M9?

In the beginning was the word

I can never see or hear the word Panorama without also hearing Sibelius’ Karelia Suite. Work it out for yourself, if you can. Its a 50s/60s thing. I mention this because finding a panoramic for the blog header proved more challenging than I expected. The first effort was a scene from Angkor Wat but the observant reader will note that I have switched to a local scene. Taken at 7am it shows a tranquil scene off the sea wall of Sai Kung as I walked down to the chaos of the preparations for Dragon Boat day. This is the full image, uncropped. You get a few more fluffy clouds at the top. I’m so generous.

I sat down with my laptop yesterday and wanted to write a blog entry. I could not squeeze out a word. Not one. Maybe I have been reading too much. On a flight to Dubai this week Cathay kindly gave me a seat (business class) with a broken entertainment system. So 8 hours or so of good old fashioned reading replaced Top Gear episode 587.  Not quite so old fashioned as I had no book, only an iPad. But that left me with the happy choice of about half a dozen unread tomes plus lot more to re-read if the mood took me. So “On China” by Kissinger was finished. And a fine read it is too. For someone who was alive during the Mao era it is fascinating reading. So many major events played out on our (black & white) TV screens but only now do we begin to see them with the perspective of time. Kissinger clearly has a formidable mind even if he has a face to sink a thousand ships. His writing is far more accessible than I had imagined. It is not a book that falls into the category of “can’t put it down” but it is certainly doesn’t need any great effort. Towards the end it seems to me to be a little more rambling, almost as if he is unsure how to finish off such a remarkable work. Whilst I was reading it I spotted a small spat between him and Lord Patten in the FT about Kissinger’s alleged views on the cultural revolution. I can certainly see why Henry was irked by Fat Pang’s loose interpretation as the CR  surely falls firmly into the category of ‘unmitigated disasters’. I recommend this book as I do believe there are lessons in it for how we should view and think carefully about China today.

Quite coincidentally, and at the risk of being accused of name dropping, I was sitting next to a Royal Sheikh at his majlis on Thursday and he started to talk about a recent meeting he had had with Lord Chris. As a resident of HK, his highness seemed to assume that I must know CP quite well and I dared not disillusion him. So I mentioned his predilection for egg tarts but I think it is fair to assume that they were not on the palace menu when Fat Pang visited. I do find Arabic hospitality enchanting. The charm and courtesy of my host and his family were rare finds in the modern world. There is much to the saying that “travel broadens the mind” and as I approach retirement I am glad I have had the chance to see six continents for business and pleasure. My regular visits to Pakistan give me a view of the country that is far removed from that of the CNN lens. I have never felt threatened (possibly due to the man with the kalshnikov sitting next to me) but I have felt a warmth that I would not expect to find as a Pakistani travelling in the opposite direction.

I think a photo is due:

Again, this is Sai Kung. We are at the starting line for the 100m dash as everyone competes to see who can get out of the rain quickest when the storms break. Yesterday it was clear as I stood on the pier that we were soon going to be at risk of a thorough drenching. The light and the skies were wonderful. Dark sheets of low, leaden, corrugated cloud hung over the town. The kites bounced around in the  air currents and the outgoing revelers on the party boats looked anxiously upwards. Not a good time for a booze cruise. And down it came. I love it. Apart from the complete inability of people shorter than me (most) to realize that their umbrellas run the twin risks of poking my eye out and drenching me as they close them in mid dash across the finishing line.

A couple of fine fellows failed to notice the rain. Either that or they decided the alternative of being compressed to a pancake in the crush was simply too dreadful. Of course it depends against whom you are being crushed.

If my recommendation of Kissinger doesn’t attract you then I can offer an alternative, which falls into the category of “unputdownable”, at least for me. This is by the wonderful Spanish author, Carlos Ruiz Zafon. I read the much lauded The Shadow of the Wind some twelve months ago and discovered that he has since written a prequel. It probably does not quite reach the same heights (a lofty ambition if ever there were one) but The Angel’s Game is nonetheless a fine yarn. Perhaps it is wrong to say that books are the hero but they are core to the plot. The debate rages in my own mind whether I am going astray by reading e books rather then good old paper ones. I suppose I believe there is room for both. Some books just can’t be digitized – they need to be touched, caressed, worshiped and I delight in buying old first editions or antiquarian books with good provenance back to an author or owner. Some have the odd jotting or scribbles in them, which are always fascinating. However the confines of a Hong Kong home mean I can no longer accumulate hardbacks without considering the space. So many books now do arrive via the ether and I am happy to enjoy them in much the same way. If the Kindle or iPad makes reading more accessible, trendy or cheap and more people hurl themselves into the maelstrom of the written word then I am all for it. Heavens to Murgatroyd, they will even be writing next!

Finally, a confession. As an owner of 3.5 Leicas (an M3, an M9, an X1 and a Panny LX5) you would think the last thing I need is another camera. But, after vehemently swearing I would not buy the new Fuji X100 I succumbed today. Willpower with the breaking strain of a KitKat, as my estranged brother might say and frequently did. A quick fumble with it before the battery gave up the ghost has already revealed some really nice features and a few less so. I can’t believe it will be much different from the X1 but of course it is an F2 not an F2.8 and it has better high ISO output it seems. Can you ever have too many cameras?