Apparently, the seminal British television arts programme, The South Bank Show is forty years old this weekend. I remember watching it on a Sunday evening with it’s extravagantly coiffured presenter, Melvyn Bragg.
I thought this might be an appropriate time therefore to show an image from a (very brief) portrait session I had wth him some years ago. I can’t remember the client but I do remember that the venue was the South Bank Centre and that I probably had less than five minutes – a pretty standard amount of time to make an impactual and polished image under the cold, dead eye of some insufferably intransigent PR (plus ça change…).
In those days, it was rare to be able to set up a background (as seemingly all celebrity portraits have to have now) so I chose a neutral wall and used a metre square Chimera soft box mounted on a Lumedyne head with a heavy battery pack that no doubt I’d struggled with on the ‘Tube at rush hour… This is back in the days of film when I was shooting 6×6 and one had to meter slightly more carefully than with the more forgiving digital cameras that we now take for granted. I remember very little about the shoot except looking at the contact sheet I see that I shot just ten images (from a roll of twelve) and Bragg was polite if brief. He did comment on my camera – as many people used to – an old Mamiya TLR – a C330 built like a tank with bellows… (years later I’d photograph Arundhati Roy who insisted that I only use that camera because it looked “like an antique”). The softbox was great at wrapping light around the face if you set up right and had time to adjust and it was a stock-in-trade technique I used when I knew I’d be pushed for time and wouldn’t be able to use a second head for a little help with the shadows. All key light, no fill.
I shot a portrait for a European magazine yesterday – something I don’t do enough of these days and I used three lights on one set up (for those interested in such things, a big, deep 100cm Elinchrom Octabox as key and then two other kicks with a brolly and another shot into a reflector underneath). It took more than twenty minutes to set up before I shot a frame … I did at one point miss those earlier simple shots… but not the inevitable wait for the film to come back from the lab to determine whether the job was a success…
I’m no Elvis fan but I know lots of people have a very soft spot for The King and his music. For many, the anniversary of his death today is a significant one so I thought I’d show a few images that I made at an Elvis convention some years ago in Blackpool as a mini tribute. Once upon a time I was shooting a good deal on a rather lovely 5×4 Horseman Camera with Polaroid Type 55 (pos/neg) instant film. Working that way allowed me to shoot rather formal – but unexpectedly beautiful images that I could peel apart and then give to the subject (whilst shoving the negative in a big tank of fixer). It was a lovely way to work but my back never forgave me for the weight of kit I had to lug about. Anyway, here’s a triptych of some of the work…
There was some inevitability about it of course but after thirty years, The Independent Newspaper has decided to close the print edition(s) and move online. In the late 1990s and early 2000s I worked on quite a few stories for the excellent Sunday Magazine picture desk that was Victoria Lukens and Susan Glen.
Susan, now a respected photography consultant is featuring some of the Independent’s work on her site and has just published my story about the mental landscape of war amongst child soldiers in Africa, The Lord of the Flies
I’m delighted that one of my images is featured in a new travel magazine called Renegade. It’s small, beautiful and full of interesting stuff. Here’s my double page – an image The Tree of Life in Iraq.
According to a report in the Observer newspaper, Britain is again falling for the charms of the jellied eel. Apparently Tesco sales of the stuff have grown by “35% since the supermarket giant took a gamble and started selling them outside London”. The increase in consumption is being “attributed to a new, more austere environment”.
I’ve written and photographed jellied eels and the Pie and Mash shops of the East End a fair few times for different magazines over the last couple of years and I have to say reports that I have heard from there tell a completely different story. Very, very few people ask for eels in pie shops these days and those that do seem to fall into two categories. Firstly, older people that have always eaten them and remember their hayday pre-1950/60’s and secondly, young middle class emigres to the trendier spots of Hackney, that do so once for a bet.
What I suspect we might be seeing are the novelty buying habits of communities that still identify with the traditional accoutrement of a rosy, cosy fug of a dying white working class culture. These are to be found primarily in the post-war new towns of Hertfordshire and Essex. That would certainly explain the supermarket connection and why at least most pie and mash shops stopped killing and jellying their own eels years ago. Jellied eels are totemic of a simpler and now unrecognisable East End Victoriana but eels have long been a staple part of London food and were synonymous with the city and its people. In King Lear, Shakespeare’s Fool in his ramblings to the King, witters – “Cry to it, nuncle, as the Cockney did to the eels when she put ’em i’ the paste alive; she knapped ’em o’ the coxcombs with a stick, and cried ‘Down, wantons, down!’”
In a city dominated and bisected by the River Thames the eel’s popularity was that it was plentiful, cheap and when most meat or fish had to be preserved in salt, eel could be kept alive in puddles of water. The Victorian curate Reverend David Badham reports in his ‘Prose Halieutics; Or Ancient and modern fish tattle’ published in 1854 that –
“London steams and teems with eels alive and stewed. For one halfpenny a man of the million may fill his stomach with six or seven long pieces and wash them down with a sip of the glutinous liquid they are stewed in.”
Such was the demand that eels were brought over from The Netherlands in great quantities by Dutch eel schuyts and these were commended for helping feed London during the Great Fire in 1666. Although they were seen as inferior to domestic eels, the British government rewarded the Dutch for their charity by Act of Parliament in 1699 granting them exclusive rights to sell eels from their barges on the Thames. During the nineteenth century however, the Thames became increasingly polluted so that it could no longer sustain significant eel populations and the Dutch ships had to stop further upstream to prevent their cargo being spoiled.
The rise of the pie shops were a direct result of the adulteration of eels and pies sold on the streets. The shops were indicators of aspiration for sections of the urban working class and their physical rootedness. Their decoration and their hygiene were ways to ape ‘social betters’. The idea in the Observer article that jellied eels are traditionally austerity food is wrong. They were seen, certainly in the pie shops, as a treat. In wider society however, eating jellied eels and pies has a comedic value (but then the British always either laughed at or scorned its poor – except when it sent them off to die in the mud or Flanders or elsewhere) and a resonance with the ‘jolly’ Pearly Kings and Queens. Nowadays seen as quaint costumed charity workers, they were originally leading and respected costermongers that would settle often violent street disputes between gangs. A cartoon representation of poverty and tradition. The undoubted death of the pie mash and eel shops on the High Street is symptomatic of what the New Economics Foundation calls ‘clone town Britain’ where every High Street has the same shops. As Jane Jacobs argued in the Death and Life of Great American Cities (1960) communities are “created by myriad small daily encounters… the sum of such casual, public contact at local level is a feeling for the public identity… a web of public respect and trust”. It was that trust that made people flock to eel and pie shops in the late Nineteenth century because they knew that the food was ‘clean’ and somehow honest. It is what drives a more allegedly ‘sophisticated’ palate away today.
It’s what drives people to shop at Tesco. Even those whose families would describe themselves as ‘working-class East Enders’ whilst living in more affluent suburbs.
When I interviewed Graham Poole, one of three brothers that run the authentic, remaining Manze pie and mash shops, he seemed to bear this out.
“We get emails at all times of night – after people have had a few drinks… old East Enders that have moved out, reminisce – they want their eels and pies”.
They want their memories.
Some memories are dangerous however. As much as I personally enjoy eating them, eels are endangered. In 2010 eel populations in the Thames had fallen by 98% in five years. Across the country there are similar issues. Nobody really understands why elvers aren’t spawning – but then nobody actually knows the precise mechanism for and the location of, the migration to the Sargasso Sea.
Catholic priest Father Oliver Kennedy, 80, has for forty years run one of the only remaining commercially viable wild eel fisheries in Europe (Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland). “Things are very bad (for the eel) in Germany, Holland and France… we on the other hand are relatively safe – we buy elvers out of the Severn (River in the UK) and they take between twelve and twenty years to mature so our crisis might be delayed”.
It is clear however that unless we find a way to farm eels like salmon or clear migratory paths, the European eel may not see the end of the century.
Here’s the first in an occasional series of unpublished images from a recent Conde Nast Traveller piece on Sao Tome and Principe.
I’d just finished a portrait down the road when I heard some music and drifted into a bar (as you do). I found a sound system and a few people swaying to the music between the tables. This elegant woman was dancing the afternoon away.
Here’s a recent tearsheet for the German Magazine, Effilee of an article that I wrote and photographed about a particular response to non-native invasive (alien) species – Muntjac Deer, Grey Squirrel and American Crayfish… the German headline has it best – something like, “Who is a stranger here is eaten”. Less sensationally, the piece explores the environmental fallout of introduced species and a discussion about both ‘speciesism’ and, the realization that we now live in an age that may come to be known as the Anthrocene.
I read with great regret a small piece from the Economist that tells of a ‘souring mood’ in the tiny African country, Burundi. It seems that opposition forces have again taken to the hills after around three hundred of their number have been killed since July and dozens arrested. Much of this goes back to the 2010 election which, despite the International community declaring reasonably fair was greeted by anger from the forces opposing President Nkurunziza. I worked several times in Burundi during the last twelve years – assignments ranged from looking at the so-called Regroupment camps where the Tutsi government corralled Hutu peasants ‘for their own safety’ in appalling conditions (as part of a global series called The Politics of Hunger) to looking at the steps to reconciliation with the Bashingantahe councils. I also photographed and wrote about the extraordinary Marguerite Barankitse, The Angel of Burundi who adopted children of all tribes amidst the terrible violence of the Civil War. I fear that her heroism and devotion will be called on again.
On Monday, The Forces for National Liberation (FNL) leader Agathon Rwasa, whom Burundian authorities believe is hiding along with fellow combatants in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, called on Nkurunziza to step down. Reuters are reporting this as a declaration of war. I sincerely hope that they are wrong.