(Written on 27 April 2016)
Insomnia – the inability to sleep
Jet Lag – a temporary disruption of the body’s normal biological rhythms after high speed travel through several time zones
#WexMondays – a weekly photography competition on social media that has been known to cause insomnia
I suffer from insomnia, normally I get to sleep at around 2am if lucky. I’m then awake at around 6.30am when my wife’s alarm goes off (she’s always been the early riser). I then nod until 8’ish before rising and getting to work (late). Luckily I’m the boss.
Having just returned from a 2 week holiday in Arizona, where the time is currently 8 hours behind the UK, it would be fair to say I’m tired this week. Last night, or this morning to be more accurate, I got to sleep at around 4am. Yesterday I was less tired as I managed to get to sleep at 3.30. Result.
Arizona is a wonderful place to visit, and to live I guess. For photographers it is heaven on earth. When they hear of Arizona most people think of one thing, the Grand Canyon, however it is so much more than that. From the lowest point of 72 ft at the border with Mexico to 12,600 ft at Humphreys Peak near Flagstaff, I cannot think of a more diverse 400 miles long x 300 miles wide area anywhere else. During my visit we experienced a temperature change of 39f (4c) to 35c (95f) within a couple of days and 140 miles. Phoenix gets 7 inches of rain in a year and temperatures regularly reach 110f during the summer months. Flagstaff, some 140 miles north, is one of the top five snowiest cities in the US. Whilst most think of a desert climate, there are large areas that resemble Colorado; mountainous with lakes and pines.
I’ve been fortunate to visit the state, and South West USA, on a number of occasions. The first time I went was for a family holiday in circa 2003, to Scottsdale. At that time I was a keen golfer so the trip was part holiday part reconnaissance mission to check out the local golf courses. My wife and I instantly fell in love with the place. Being from Scotland anywhere with sunshine is exciting, but the added bonus of practically zero rain and scenery that could compete with my homeland, as well as dozens of oasis like golf courses in perfect condition was almost overwhelming. Since then I’ve returned numerous times, the golf clubs and friends accompanied me on a few occasions, but most of the trips were with my wife and children.
It was Arizona that inspired me to pick up the camera again. I was keen on photography in my teens, even to the extent where I purchased the equipment to allow me to enlarge the negatives I received from my local Boots, although I never developed my own film. I suppose like many teenage boys I had an unhealthy obsession for making things larger!
Marriage, followed by children, coupled with the pressure of running a business in the construction industry, took care of any ambition to seriously develop my photography, although the advent of digital did rekindle my interest, to the extent that I have a collection of bridge cameras in a cupboard at home that my wife keeps encouraging me to sell (she seems to think they can provide funds to feed her shoe and bag obsession).
With my boys growing up and the business I run weathering a few recessions to become reasonably successful, I found myself with a bit more free time. My main hobby was golf, I was relatively good, getting my handicap down to 5, however the vagaries of the Scottish weather and the time required to complete a round, never mind practicing, gradually lessened my enthusiasm to the extent where these days I very rarely play. To fill the void I purchased a Panasonic G5 micro four thirds digital camera. At that time I had no clue what “micro four thirds meant” or FX/DX/Cropped sensor for that matter.
I liked the G5 and the lenses I bought over the next few months, but the images, whether captured at home or on holiday, never seemed to reproduce the “view” I had when I clicked the shutter. Neither did the images captured on the Sony Nex 7 I traded up to (who says losing pounds is healthy?). I went to places like Yosemite NP, Zion NP, San Francisco, New York, and every time I came home my photos, whilst better than most people’s holiday snaps, were totally underwhelming to me.
If the question was how do I improve my shots, the answer wasn’t by spending £1600 on a Nikon D600, but I did anyway. Going full frame without really understanding what full frame meant had the result you would expect, only my crap images were now covered in oil stains that took longer than a round of golf to remove in Aperture. One sizeable financial loss later I was the proud owner of a (used) Nikon D800. At least this time I didn’t need to swap the lenses.
During the above period I started entering my photos into a weekly competition run by East Anglian based Wex Photographic on Twitter, known as #WexMondays (don’t forget the hashtag). In it’s early years the competition didn’t attract anywhere near the quantity or quality of entries it does today. Heck, I even managed to win one week and received a gift voucher (£10 I believe), which I have never cashed in. In those days I entered through a different account than the one that I use now, which I set up solely for my photography interaction. At that time the competition was dominated by a certain Lee Acaster, an outstanding amateur photographer from the area local to Wex. My first ever interaction with Lee was to ask him if Paddy Power had already paid out on him winning the competition; I think that was sometime in the spring, he was that far ahead of the rest. Can only assume he didn’t enter the week I won.
Whilst it is often referred to as a bit of fun, #WexMondays was, and remained until this week, something of a photographic goal for me. To an extent it was an opportunity to measure my “work” against other like minded people on a regular basis. At some point after my glorious £10 win and last year, Wex introduced the unveiling of a weekly shortlist to the competition, and it became an ambition to at least feature on this list. If I could achieve this then it would surely be a sign that I was improving. Up until last week I had managed to feature on the shortlist on a single occasion, and with an image I considered far from my best (shit, in fact).
Having failed on so many occasions to receive any form of recognition for my photography it was easy to doubt myself. It was a very pleasant surprise therefore to receive notification in December last year that I had managed to get two images shortlisted in the first major competition I had ever entered, Scottish Landscape Photographer of the Year (SLPOTY). It was especially interesting to note that the two images I had success with were #WexMondays failures. It was probably around then that I finally realised my work was actually progressing and that #WexMondays was simply, to borrow a phrase from Russ Barnes, “a benchmark I am incapable of meeting”. Stop entering I thought, then I remembered I’m Scottish, so I’m a determined bastard.
Despite receiving confirmation in the new year (this year) that my entries did not reach the next stage, SLPOTY had provided me with the boost I needed. (PAUSE – Note that two guys I interact with on Twitter, Nick and Camillo, achieved excellent results in the competition with Nick finishing second overall, and Camillo (who has suffered some Wex disappointment) getting a Highly Commended for his portfolio – UN PAUSE).
2016 was shaping up nicely, despite the fact I was turning 50 and that my dog ate my dental plate containing a front tooth ten days before my birthday and a celebratory trip to New York (thanks Bruce). I even managed to get two of my images published in On Landscape magazine, an online only magazine that features wonderful work from many fine Landscape photographers from the UK and beyond.
My wife, youngest son and I had a fabulous break in New York. Me and the Fuji XT1 (everyone needs a backup camera) and the expensive lenses I took along (nobody told me they wouldn’t fit my D810, I swear), managed to capture a few “keepers”. One of my better efforts, a blue hour shot capturing the Empire State Building, Midtown Manhattan, Freedom Tower and New York Fecking Harbour, ingeniously composed to also show the crowd of people standing on the level below me at the top of the Rockefeller Centre to provide scale to the image, still got nowhere on Wex. Meanwhile a clearly inferior cityscape of what I assumed was downtown Norwich (did I mention Wex were based in Norwich) was shortlisted, probably won as well but by then my screen was difficult to read through the broken glass.
Insomnia and jet lag. Almost as welcome as Ant and Dec on a Saturday night. So at 3am this morning I’m reading “More than a Rock”, written by Guy Tal, a photographer/artist based in the South West USA whose work I greatly admire. I’ve tried to read this book before, but to be perfectly honest it is very deep and at times difficult to read, at least for someone with the amount of sandwiches I have in my picnic box. So in the past I really just pretended it was FHM and looked at the pictures. But at 3am and not tired in the slightest I thought there was a decent chance it would help me get to sleep.
I’m not really sure what chapter it finally came to me, or if it was even in the book, but I suddenly realised why my images have never really captured what the viewfinder showed me when I clicked the shutter. It’s because I’ve been trying to capture what it looked like at the time instead of what it felt like. It finally dawned on me that I’ve been trying to record what I was looking at instead of trying to capture what I was feeling at the time.
About two weeks ago I drove from Tucson in southern Arizona to Sedona, in the central/northern region. Having plenty of time to kill before we could check into our hotel I decided to take the long way round and went via Petrified Forest National Park which is part of an area know as the Painted Desert. Only someone with a camera can turn a 3 hour journey into a 13 hour road trip. We drove through the park, occasionally stopping to take some photos of the petrified wood the park is named after. Sadly the light was very poor and the dull overcast sky, more reminiscent of my homeland, killed my hopes of capturing amazing images of the ancient logs transformed into dazzling crystal like rock. I did however get some average pictures of piles of dead wood. (Louis Van Gaal was nowhere to be seen).
Cut and pasted geology lesson – millions of years ago this area was roamed by dinosaurs. When trees were toppled by volcanic eruptions, they were swept away by flowing water and deposited in marshes and covered with mud and volcanic ash. Buried under layers of sediment, the logs remained buried for millions and millions of years undergoing an extremely slow process of petrification which essentially turned the logs to colourful stone. You can find out more about the park here.
There is only one public road through the park and it connects to Interstate 40, a road hated by many Northern Arizona natives as it largely took the place of Route 66 in Arizona, destroying many of the small towns and communities it bypassed. I40 was our connection to Flagstaff and then Sedona 30 miles south. (Incidentally I40 goes through the city of Winslow Arizona, and a few years ago whilst driving from Monument Valley to Scottsdale I passed through it. I had my iTunes playing in the car on shuffle and Take it Easy came on (true story). Sadly no girls in flat bed fords slowed down to take a look at this aging eejit from Scotland).
A few miles before the junction with I40 I stopped to take pictures of some trees that I spotted adjacent to a dry river. Unlike the petrified logs throughout the park these were real, live trees and their form drew my attention. Behind the trees the sky was black, a distant thunderstorm providing a contrasting backdrop to the flora and fauna of The Painted Desert. For a few brief minutes the late afternoon sun broke through and I was treated to the most magical light only the desert can provide.
I posted one of the images to my Flickr page, and whilst I like it, there is something missing. The feeling. Being 5000 miles from home, standing on the edge of a thunderstorm that had turned the sky black for what looked like 100 miles across, then watching the desert light up like a kaleidoscope being smashed over a black granite worktop. The photo I posted was a reproduction of what the camera saw. Below is a cropped version of what it felt like. Not everyone will like it, indeed it’s possible no one else might. But thanks to Guy Tal, SLPOTY and #WexMondays, I do. And I finally realise, that is the point of it all.
(Don’t miss the footnote).