Posts Tagged ‘Travel Photography’

‘Out in the Big Sky Country’, as featured in Canary Wharf magazine, November 2012

February 10, 2013

The Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, www.nicksmithphoto.com

There can be few better remedies for the stresses and strains of metropolitan life than an activity break in the classic landscapes and wide-open spaces of Montana’s ‘Big Sky Country’. Nick Smith goes glamping at the exclusive Ranch at Rock Creek…

It’s like something out of an old Wild West movie. The sun dips over the snow-capped Pintler Mountains, while horses are being ridden home along the trail. Tucked away in the lush rolling foothills, surrounded by miles of ranchland a fast, shallow river runs past the Granite Lodge. Inside, a fire crackles, champagne is served and all around there is memorabilia from the old days of the great railroad hotels, hard rock quarrying and the Ghost towns of the silver mining boom years. There’s a frontier spirit and a pioneering zest with a twist of luxury here at the Ranch at Rock Creek. And it’s paradise.

The Ranch at Rock Creek, Montana, by Nick Smith, www.nicksmithphoto.com

The Ranch at Rock Creek, Montana, by Nick Smith, http://www.nicksmithphoto.com

Twenty-four hours ago I was in London. But now, here in Montana I might as well be on another planet. Gone is the impersonal hurly-burley of a city bristling with commerce and bursting with traffic. Surrounding me is the huge jagged landscape of the bones of old America, where the sky is blue, the grass is green and everything else is… well, there isn’t much else. Just space. It’s no wonder that the Rock Creek’s owner Jim Manley, after a lifetime’s search for the perfect ranch, chose this utopian pocket of land near a fork in the creek which, if you exclude the small town of Philipsburg (population 914), is fifty miles away from anywhere. To try to understand how peaceful and isolated Montana is you need to savour the statistic that it is the fourth largest of the American states, and yet fewer than a million people live here.

Riding the trail at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, www.nicksmithphoto.com

Riding the trail at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, http://www.nicksmithphoto.com

Montana gets its name, with some justification, from the Spanish for ‘mountainous country.’ But it is also the ‘Big Sky Country,’ and absurd as it may sound, this is a region of the world that seems to have been blessed with a disproportionately large canvas of ever changing cloud formations. As we spend our days fishing, riding, shooting and hiking, the sky is a constant source of amazement. If you climb to the Top of the World – a vantage point on the ranch that no photographer can afford to miss – there are sweeping, uninterrupted 180-degree horizons. This is something you don’t get in the city. And this is why ‘city folk’ come to Rock Creek.

Mailboxes at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, www.nicksmithphoto.com

Mailboxes at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, http://www.nicksmithphoto.com

They also come here to experience the rustic simplicity of ranch life. It has to be said though, at Rock Creek there are a few small embellishments that seem to transform rough frontier living into something of a master-class in uncomplicated guilt-free luxury. Everything is thought of and nothing is overstated, but the first order of the day is privacy and seclusion. If you chose, you could spend your whole time here and never see anyone outside your own party. And yet, as I quickly found, evenings are a sociable occasion, when after fine dining in the Lodge, there’s 8-ball pool, karaoke and bowling in the Silver Dollar Saloon. Everyone joins in, and it was in the saloon that I met Jim Manley who tells me, as he sits on a bar stool made from a saddle, that his childhood dream was to own such a ranch.

The 'Big Sky' at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, www.nicksmithphoto.com

The ‘Big Sky’ at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, http://www.nicksmithphoto.com

But it is a dream fulfilled with a thread of luxury woven through its fabric. With the distinctive style of Americana, the accommodation works more like a village, where you can stay in rooms in the lodge or log homes dotted around the ranch. I stayed in one of the ‘tents’ down by the creek, a term that does nothing to prepare you for the experience of ‘glamping’ taken to a new level. My classic canvas cabin, named Cut-Bow after one of the six breeds of trout that live in the creek, had a fireplace, screened-in porch and was furnished in a reassuringly rustic style. Facing the river, in the early morning the only sounds you can hear are those of the creek rushing past and the breeze in the cottonwood trees.

Cottonwood trees at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, www.nicksmithphoto.com

Cottonwood trees at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, http://www.nicksmithphoto.com

For outdoor types – and by the time it comes to leave Rock Creek Ranch, that means everyone – the rhythm of your stay is dictated by the activities that are on offer. What this means is that very quickly you become familiar with the Blue Canteen and the Rod & Gun. The former is where you fill up on coffee and pastries before setting off for the day, and where you sit around the fire with a pre-dinner drink on your weary return. The latter is where to saddle-up, tackle up and otherwise prepare for any of the ranch’s dozen activities that range from archery to clay pigeon shooting, horseback riding to fly-fishing. For many, the main attraction will be to take a horse out along the trail and there is plenty of superb riding at the ranch. But for me the jewel in the crown is the creek itself.

After a quick induction on fly-fishing I find myself out on the creek with one of the expert resident fishermen who tells me that we’re on one of Montana’s finest stretches of ‘Blue Ribbon’ water, meaning that it is environmentally pristine with great sport to be had too. Within half and hour I’d caught two trout (and released them) and was thoroughly hooked myself. For the rest of my visit, I did little other than go fishin’ and take the photos that go with the article.

License plates at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, www.nicksmithphoto.com

License plates at the Ranch at Rock Creek. Photo: Nick Smith, http://www.nicksmithphoto.com

Rock Creek Ranch is one of those places where you vow to return and actually mean it. It’s a great way to get away from the buzz of the city. The people are friendly, the food is sumptuous and you can take ranch life at any pace you like. But more than anything, it’s Montana’s landscape that is so captivating. To walk and ride amongst it feels like a privilege, as if you are experiencing America at its best, having discovered one of the last great secret places on earth.

Travel notes

Carrier is offering 7 nights from £5745pp, including accommodation in the main Granite Lodge, ranch activities (one morning and one afternoon) and return flights from London Heathrow with United Airlines. The price is based on 18 August 2013 departures and excludes transfers. (Carrier: 0161 492 1356, http://www.carrier.co.uk)

 

The weighty problem of airports…

September 13, 2011

Your camera equipment is never heavier than when you’re trying to board a plane. Rules may be rules, but they don’t make any sense, says Nick Smith

My story starts in one of those swish rustic safari lodges nestled deep in the heart of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. After an unpleasant overnight flight from London to Johannesburg, a four-hour delay prior to a short haul to Maun, followed by a hop, skip and a jump in a Cessna, I was exhausted. Exhausted and minus one camera.

Elephants in Botswana by Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Elephants in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Nick Smith

This was a long time ago and I’ve since been told many times what a daft idea it was to put a camera in my hold baggage. ‘Always take your photographic gear on board with you,’ sniggered Martin Hartley over a beer, before going on to tell me that if you put anything of value in your main luggage you’re asking for trouble. They don’t call it ‘Thiefrow Airport’ for nothing, he said, trying to think up a daft pun on Johannesburg to go with his earlier one. ‘I know all that,’ I said, ‘but my gadget bag was overweight and the check-in staff made me take some stuff out and repack it into my hold luggage.’

I told him how I transferred my spare camera body which, as we know never made it, having been smuggled out of an international airport presumably through the same weak link in the system that allows explosives, guns and drugs in. At least I’d had the presence of mind to ditch the spare, but I can tell you I was spitting blood when the insurance company refused to cough up, while the two airlines involved in the connector flight blamed each other. But I’ll have a rant about camera insurance another day.

Over the years I’ve varied my approach to a problem that all photographers on overseas assignments face. Through trial and error I’ve managed to get the weight of my kit down, but I can never get it to under 11kg no matter how hard I try. By the time you’ve packed the laptop, card readers, chargers and all that gubbins, there’s barely room for a compact point-and-shoot.

Sunset shot through bush sage in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Sunset shot through bush sage in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Nick Smith

I bought myself one of those ‘Airport guaranteed’ ultra light packs, but the truth is that most airlines simply won’t allow you to go airside with more than 10kg of the tools of the trade. This annoys me for several reasons, but mercifully they don’t often check, so long as you pick up your pack as if it were as light as a feather. Once you’re on the plane the real nightmare begins because, while everyone plugs themselves into their iPods, novels, and handy horseshoe-shaped cushions, I’m just sitting there waiting for the hot rectangular tray of what they call food to arrive.

I suppose after years of feeling like a criminal something had to give, and on a recent trip to Malaysia I nearly snapped, before being on the receiving end of an unexpected happy outcome. Heathrow check-in again. ‘I’m sorry sir but this bag is 11 kilos. It’s too heavy to take on as hand luggage,’ came the bored and yet still slightly helpful voice of someone not really enjoying what they were doing. I counted to ten and decided to reason with them.

giraffe bones in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Nick Smith, nicksmithphoto

Giraffe bones in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. Photo: Nick Smith

Ah, I said, but what about the people who take through a 10kg item of hand luggage and then buy a litre of water airside? As we all know from our physics classes the definition of a kilogram is that it is the weight of a litre of distilled water at 4 degrees centigrade. So, hah! The minute they buy their water they’ll be carrying the same weight as me. And what’s more, not only will I not buy a bottle of water, I further promise to drink nothing between now and boarding.

The woman looked at me sadly before repeating that my bag was overweight. But my check-in luggage weighs less than my cameras, I remonstrated. If you aggregate the total weight, I’m miles under. ‘It doesn’t work that way, sir,’ said the lady who, despite knowing I was morally right, had started to take a dislike to me. In frustration I pointed out that the portly gentleman she’d just let through was easily ten stone overweight, but did she pick on him? Oh no, that would be weightism. Maybe he’d eaten his cameras before arriving at the airport…

After further heated discussion where logic failed, and after more ‘computer says no’ moments, I was desperate. But somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered what a teacher of mine once told me years ago: that politeness and kindness would open more doors than any amount of swagger and bluster. ‘Please let me through,’ I begged. ‘Oh all right,’ she replied, ‘just this once.’

So next time I go to check in with my 11kg of kit – that I can’t put in the hold because someone will steal it – I’m going to be sweetness and light. If challenged, I’ll ask their advice, help and expert opinion on how to solve the problem. The cynical misanthrope in me doesn’t for a second think such flattery will come naturally, but I suppose we could all do with learning from our mistakes.

This article appears in the latest edition of Outdoor Photography magazine

Nick Smith’s interview with pinhole photographer Nick Livesey in Outdoor Photography magazine

February 10, 2011

Patagonia through a pinhole

Nick Livesey is best known as an Emmy-nominated maker of short films and documentaries. But he’s also a leading exponent of the art of pinhole photography. Nick Smith hears his story…

nick-livesey-by-nicksmithphoto

Nick Livesey looks up at his pinhole camera. Photo: Nick Smith

A Lancastrian, Nick left school at 16 and went to his local art college in Blackburn. At the age of 19 he was accepted by the Royal College of Art and became on of the youngest ever to graduate with an MA. He moved to New York for a year where he started making moving images, as well as embarking on a career with Ridley Scott Associates that represents him to this day.

Although widely known for his short films, commercials and documentaries, Nick is an avid exponent of the pinhole technique. His camera is ‘a bunch of MDF’ that cost him about £40, put together by a ‘garden shed genius.’ On his extended honeymoon he took this camera around Chile, trekking for days off the beaten track. The result was the intriguing and popular ‘Patagonia through a Pinhole’ exhibition at the Royal Geographical Society.

With pinhole photography ‘you’re at the mercy of the elements’ says Nick. And although he’s equally comfortable with digital technology, there’s something about the stripped-down aspect of using basic wooden boxes with film in them that he likes. ‘It’s such a basic communication and fundamental way of composing images.’

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

Nick Livesey: It was more of a quest. I was frustrated and wanted to understand light while I was making films. I was working with Directors of Photography and was really curious as to what they were doing.

NS: What was your first camera?

NL: Nikon FG-20 that I bought at a flea market in New York in 1993. It felt like an investment. It was something like $130. It’s just a great 35mm camera.

NS: What formal training do you have?

NL: I went to the Royal College of Art where I did an MA in graphic design and art direction. I pretty much lived in the dark room when I was there. At the end of the first year they asked me if there was any reason why I wasn’t working in colour. They said ‘why don’t you work in colour in your second year?’ So I did.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

NL: It’s great to specialise to the extent that you can get a handle on the subject. But I do like working in so many different areas. If you specialise too much you can start to wear blinkers.

NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

NL: I did a pinhole piece for a fashion magazine in Moscow. That really freaked out the fashion label. They kept saying ‘we need to see stuff’ and we kind of said ‘well we’ll send you a contact sheet.’

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

NL: There’s no downside. There are so many plus factors. Maybe it would be nice to not smell of dark room chemicals. So you do have to wash occasionally.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

NL: They complement each other. I’m looking into ways of cutting the front off an Ixus and replacing it with a pinhole. I think it would be interesting to see what you could get with a digital pinhole.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’re learned from another photographer?

NL: Just stand back from it all. Get close to the subject when you’re shooting it, but when you’re arranging a show, learn to stand back from it all. Try to look at everything in its entirety.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

NL: I feel like a conduit. I love taking photographs, but the only point of that is if people want to see them. I’ve always been hungry for creating images. I also love the quiet world of the dark room.

NS: What makes a great travel photograph?

NL: It’s all about the reaction of the person viewing it. If you can see someone’s reaction to your photo in a detached way – say at a show – then you’ll know what they really think.

In Nick’s gadget bag

Cameras: Wooden pinhole camera, Canon 7D, Arri 435 (movie camera), Red and Sony (digital movie cameras)

To see more of Nick Livesey’s photography visit www.nicklivesey.com

 

 

 

Nick Smith’s interview with Georgina Cranston in April 2010 Outdoor Photography magazine

March 23, 2010

Out of Africa

From gritty reportage on social issues to highly original travel photography, Georgina Cranston has a stunning and diverse portfolio. Nick Smith hears her story…

Women displaced by post election violence in Kenya, including one who fled a torched church where at least 18 people died. Photo: Georgina Cranston

British Photographer Georgina Cranston began her career in 2000, focusing on documentary photography of humanitarian issues. For the past decade she’s travelled the world on assignments for NGOs such as UNICEF and broadsheet newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph and the Times.

Working on a diverse range of subjects including slavery, leprosy and communities living in exile, Georgina has a personal interest in women’s issues. Recently working in the Congo’s gold mines she focused on the extreme conditions faced by women working as ‘human mules’ deep inside the disused mines, carrying up to 60kg of rocks on their backs, at times when eight months pregnant.

Georgina became a professional photographer as soon as she graduated from university and has worked in the industry ever since. She is currently based in London having lived in East Africa for the past three years, working across the continent.

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

Georgina Cranston: I always had a camera with me when I was younger. After university I had this idea I wanted to work in the charity sector, but I ended up a photographer working in social issues. As I started getting more jobs and I thought maybe I could make a living at this.

NS: What was your first camera?

GC: Other than a point and shoot? It was a Minolta Dynax 500Si 35mm SLR. The first one I got the hang of was a Nikon F100. I took it with me on my first job, and every time something flashed I had to dive behind the sofa to read the manual.

NS: What formal training do you have?

GC: I’ve got a degree in psychology, but as for photography I’m self-taught. I learned on the job and also did assisting to get an insight into different types of photography.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

GC: I do think it’s important, but in order to survive in the industry as it is at the moment you need other strings to your bow to earn a living. But I am going to specialise in women’s social issues.

NS: What is the best assignment you have been and so far?

GC: I went with a newspaper to see the gorillas in the Virunga National Park in the Congo – tourists don’t get to go to the Congo at the moment, so to see the gorillas there was pretty special. The millennium celebrations in Ethiopia was special too – it was bizarre to celebrate a second millennium in my lifetime.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

GC: The thing I probably struggle most with is spending a lot of time on my own – airports, computer and so on. I don’t think that’s healthy. Having a balance is probably the essence – if you’re always doing assignment photography you’re always on the move.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

GC: I use digital and it helps in the work I do – transmitting images to newspapers from overseas. Logistically it makes life easier. When I taught photography in Kenya I used film. I miss the way of working with film, not knowing what’s in the camera at the end of the day.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from another photographer?

GC: A friend of mine once encouraged me to show my work to him. It took me a while to pluck up the courage, but once I’d done this I realised how beneficial it was. It makes you look at your work in different ways.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

GC: I’ve always been fascinated with people and cultures and photography has been a great way to learn about them. Maybe that’s why I did psychology at university. An important thing for me is to capture emotions or the essence of where you are. But it’s also about transmitting these things and evoking emotion in the person who’s looking at it.

NS: What makes great travel photograph?

GC: The thing that I think that makes a good travel photograph is the energy of people or places – peaceful, highly excited, whatever. The great ones are the ones that give me that feeling.

Georgina’s golden rules

1) photograph what you’re fascinated in

2) establish relationship with subject

3) shoot RAW files

4) research your subject

5) don’t be afraid to have fun

Georgina’s kit

Cameras: Nikon D3, Nikon D700

Lenses: 17-35mm f/2.8, 28-70mm f/2.8, 80-200mm f/2.8, 85mm f/1.8

Check out Georgina’s work at www.georginacranston.com

Nick Smith’s interview with wildlife photographer Henry MacHale in Outdoor Photography magazine

February 24, 2010

Beating about the bush

Most people dream about giving up their day job to become a wildlife photographer. But Henry MacHale went one step further and turned the dream into reality. Nick Smith hears his story…

Adventure and wildlife photographer Henry MacHale. Portrait: Nick Smith

Adventure and wildlife photographer Henry MacHale. Portrait: Nick Smith

Henry MacHale read business studies at Edinburgh University, but in his holidays he spent much of his time in east Africa. In Kenya he took the first steps from being a burgeoning amateur to entering the world of the professional. Over the past decade he’s lived there, worked as a guide, managed a game reserve and got to know his way around the bush. ‘I can speak the bit of the language and so I just get in my Land Rover and go.’

After college Henry worked in a well-known financial institution in the City, but after a year it was clear that it wasn’t working out for him. He wasn’t enjoying his job and the call of Kenya’s wide-open spaces was too strong. And so at the age of 25 he turned his back on a lucrative career and a jet-set lifestyle and set off with just one camera and two lenses.

Success came quickly for Henry, who within a year had his first exhibition of his evocative black and whites in London. Called ‘Images of East Africa’, Henry’s work can also be seen online.

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

Henry MacHale: I’ve been taking photos seriously since I was about 16, but the moment I realised I wanted to become a professional was about a month before I left my job. I thought: I’ve got an eye for photography. I love Africa. That’s it. I’m going.

NS: What was your first camera?

HM: A Nikon F65 film SLR. Quite basic, but I liked the control and the way you could take real photos with it.

NS: What formal training do you have?

HM: I went to London School of Art for four months where I did a crash course on the marketing side of photography. This was hugely helpful, not so much form the creative side of things, but from the business angle.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

HM: It’s important to me. I’ve always been interested in Africa. I’ve got a huge competitive advantage out there because I’ve spent so much time in the bush and know my way around.

NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

HM: Gorillas in Rwanda. I think I enjoyed it so much because I’ve only done that once, and there was a novelty factor in that it was a very different kind of photography from what I’m used to.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

HM: I’m away seven months of the year and my friends are in London. So I’m saying ‘no’ to weddings and parties. But you can’t have it both ways. Also you tend to worry about where the next pay cheque is coming from.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

HM: Digital. It’s cheaper. You save all that money on processing. I suppose the equipment is more expensive, but you’ve got that ability to edit in the field.

NS: Which photographers have had the most influence on your work?

HM: One of the photographers I most admire is Sebastião Salgado. His work isn’t wild or wacky or crazy, but it’s beautiful and simple. He’s done quite a lot in Africa and so that links in a bit. Peter Beard shot exactly the same areas that I photograph now, and so I’ve always been interested in his work. Nick Brandt’s stuff is really cool too.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

HM: In twenty years time Africa will be a different place – some of the people and wildlife will simply not be there in the same way. It’s important to try to capture this moment in a skilful and beautiful way. It’s impossible to capture an African landscape as you see it sitting on a hill. But I want to get as close as possible to that.

NS: What makes a great outdoor photograph?

HM: Everyone knows what a wildebeest or a Maasai looks like, and so what you’ve got to try to do is make the familiar look beautiful, perhaps with the light, or the dust or the way they’re standing.

Henry’s 5 golden rules

1 You can shoot a 1000 shots but don’t

2 Be patient and willing to sit there for five hours

3 Be prepared to throw yourself into it

4 Spend a long time on location just looking

5 The unusual is not always a good photo

Henry’s gear

Camera: Canon 1DS MkIII

Lenses: Canon 70-200mm f/2.8 IS, 24-104mm f/4 IS

Check out Henry’s website: www.henrymachalephotography.co.uk

Nick Smith’s feature ‘The Roads from Damascus’ – from the Daily Telegraph, 23rd January 2010

January 22, 2010

The Roads from Damascus

With its crusader citadels, exquisite mosques and desolate ruins, all of Syria worth is well worth a visit. Nick Smith takes to the highways

Bedouin women selling taditional woven textiles among the ruins of the ruined desert caravan city of Palmyra. Photo: Nick Smith

Bedouin women selling taditional woven textiles among the ruins of the ancient desert caravan city of Palmyra, Syria. Photo: Nick Smith

As the sun sets over Damascus, its last rays shine their golden light along the Street Called Straight. Lined with coffee bars, trendy boutiques and antique shops, in the early evening this part of the Old Town exudes a metropolitan air. But it’s also steeped in Syria’s religious history. At every junction there’s a mosque or a church, and as the Old Town starts to come to life, my guide tells me that this Roman road – the Via Recta – is the only thoroughfare mentioned by name in the Bible. Bound up in the story of the conversion of St Paul, the Street Called Straight is where pilgrims, travelers and the curious congregate to start exploring this exhilarating city.

By the time night has fallen, I’m sitting in a restaurant high on Mount Qasioun tucking into a mezze of humus, grilled aubergines, olives and flat bread all sloshed down with Syrian sweet white wine. I’ve been given a table at a panoramic window, where the view of the world’s oldest city is breathtaking. With no modern skyscrapers or financial district to get in the way, Damascus is an unbroken sea of green lights, each denoting one of the city’s 2,000 mosques.

The most lovely of all is the Umayyad mosque, the fourth holiest site in Islam and understandably known as the Grand Mosque of Damascus. At one time the largest building in the world, it’s famous for being the resting place of John the Baptist’s head (three other sites contest this) and the place where Jesus Christ will reappear at the end of the world. There’s the tomb of Saladin, and there are exquisite golden mosaics. But for all this grandeur, as the clouds of pigeons circulate around the great open courtyard, it’s a functioning mosque, where you can walk among hundreds of Damascenes going about their normal daily prayer.

Guiding me through Syria is Amelia Stewart, who runs a desert adventure and cultural travel company, Simoon. What with all the Christian architecture, Roman ruins and other archaeological sites, she tells me there’s plenty to keep you busy. ‘But you’ve also got to take time to soak up the landscapes, try out the fabulous Syrian restaurants and sample the local wine.’ One of the best reasons for visiting Syria, Amelia explains, is because you’re often literally tumbling over ruins, even in a fortnight ‘you can really get the flavour of the place.’

From Damascus we head for the Krac des Chevaliers, a mediaeval crusader fortress once described by T E Lawrence – Lawrence of Arabia – as ‘perhaps the best preserved and most wholly admirable castle in the world.’ It’s easy to see why he was so impressed. This imposing edifice once controlled the road from Antioch to Beirut, standing as sentinel to the eastern Mediterranean, from which the occupying Christians could scour the landscape for Muslim armies mustering in the valleys below.

All too quickly, we’re heading north across broken, stony terrain deep into northern Syria, where the highlight is the Church of St Simeon Stylites. Simeon was an early Christian aesthete, who in order to remove himself from the conventions of the material world sat on top of a pillar for 37 years. Not much of the pillar remains today, but the ruins of the church, set in a pine wood in these ancient rocky hillsides is one of the more important diversions en route to Aleppo. At Syria’s second city a gargantuan citadel presides over the old town, protected by ‘murder holes’, vents above the gateways through which boiling oil was poured on to its attackers.

Almost a century ago T.E. Lawrence travelled through Syria on foot, pausing to take part in archaeological digs. He stayed in Aleppo at Baron’s before famously leaving this ‘beautiful hotel’ without paying his bill. Today, with its threadbare Turkish carpets, leather club chairs and elegantly rotating brass fans, it looks as though it’s hardly changed since Lawrence’s day. But it worked its faded charm upon Agatha Christie who wrote Murder on the Orient Express while staying here, accompanying her archaeologist husband Max Mallowan on his expeditions.

No visit to Syria can be complete without visiting the desolate, haunting ruins of the ancient caravan city of Palmyra. Only partially restored, it has an apocalyptic ‘cities in dust’ atmosphere that only increases as you wander through the broken stones at night. A Unesco-listed World Heritage Site, it’s probably unique in that you can walk among the ruins unhindered. There are no fences, guards or ‘keep out’ signs – only a photographer’s paradise as the tower tombs and arcades of pillars cast their long shadows in the pale desert sunrise.

After Palmyra it’s time to complete the circle and return to Damascus, back to the Street Called Straight, the rooftop restaurants and the atmospheric late-night bars. I decide to pay a final visit to the House of Saint Ananias, where it’s claimed, St Paul was baptized. But on my way I’m stopped by a man who asks me into his trinket shop for tea. He tells me he once played the part of St Paul in a movie version of the saint’s life. We drink glasses of sweet tea and he tells me the his story and lists the places I should visit – the Armenian Church, the Jewish quarter, the shrine of Saint George. As we say goodbye, I look ruefully at the ‘traditional damascene dagger’ he’s sold me, and wonder how much of his story is true.

Way to go

1) Simoon Travel offers an 11-day ‘Highlights of Syria’ tour. Departing 5th March 2010, starting at £2695 pp. Includes flights, transfers, accommodation, guides. For further information phone +44 207 622 6263, or www.simoontravel.com

2) bmi offers daily flights from Heathrow to Damascus. Return flights are from just £353 (economy) and £1168 (Business) including taxes. For further information visit www.flybmi.com

Nick Smith’s column ‘A shot in the dark’ – Outdoor Photography, February 2010 edition

January 22, 2010

A shot in the dark

When he was asked to report on night kayaking on a phosphorescent lake in November, photojournalist Nick Smith thought that someone was pulling his leg…

One of the great things about being a photojournalist is you’re never quite sure what’s going to happen next. One minute you’re embroiled in a public spat over the latest Arctic ice-thickness statistics and the next you’re being flown to Ireland to take photographs of people kayaking in pitch darkness.

Let me explain. The phone call went like this. ‘We’re looking for a photographer to cover one of our tourism attractions’, chimed the mellifluous tones of a sophisticated West End PR lady called Kath. It turns our her client, Tourism Ireland, was flying a gang of UK newspaper journos to do some kayaking in Lough Hyne, a marine lagoon west of Cork. Would I like to take the photos?

Well, when anyone asks me if I’d ‘like to take the photos’, I tend to answer in the affirmative without so much as a second thought. But this sounded like it could be a poisoned chalice. I asked Kath to tell me more, and after a long conversation it boiled down to this. She was asking me to take photographs in the middle of November, in the dark, in Ireland where you could wager the shirt on your back that it would be raining. ‘But the good thing’ said Kath, ‘is that the lake is naturally phosphorescent, which should make your photos even more special.’

There’s something magical about arriving at Cork airport in the late afternoon with the autumnal sun setting in the west. The almost horizontal rays skimmed across the idyllic countryside and instinctively I started to write stuff in my notebook along the lines of ‘it’s not called the Emerald Isle for nothing’. But, by the time I’d got off the plane the coppery sun had given way to a ‘soft day’, which roughly translates as a slate grey sky with precipitation in the form of stair rods.

As we drove west to Skibereen – famous for its famine burial pits – I started to realise the magnitude of my task. To add to the rain, it was now very dark, and I was beginning to entertain no hope of getting any photographs at all. Rubbish, I said to myself. As my mentor Martin Hartley tells me – there’s always something a professional photographer can shoot. But what if he’s wrong?

Feeling that I was sliding into the photographic equivalent of the valley of the shadow of death, I decided to cheer myself up by getting my brand spanking Canon 5D II out of the bag. I reasoned these babies can take photos in the dark, and since this is exactly what I was commissioned to do, I’d obviously bought the right tool for the job. Although I’d never ramped it up that far, the 5D II has an ISO upper limit of 6400, which lifted my spirits. I rootled around in my gadget bag for the lens with the widest aperture (Sigma 24mm f1.8) and screwing it onto the body thought life couldn’t be that bad after all. What with a little noise reduction here and a tad of sharpening there, we’d be in business.

Lough Hyne, as I later found out, is one of the most beautiful places on earth. But when I arrived in the bible black darkness and thick drizzle that penetrated every layer of clothing, I was too miserable to care. We strapped on our headlamps, got in our kayaks and paddled out onto a phosphorescent lake that refused to phosphoresce. I took my first look through the viewfinder. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Big fat zero.

This was just before I found that you can’t direct a torch, use an off-camera flash cord and press the shutter at the same time. The idea was that I’d illuminate another kayak, get a fix on the autofocus and get shooting. By now you’ll realise that this was a bad idea for so many reasons but the main one is that if the autofocus can’t see anything it can’t autofocus. In desperation I switched to manual focus, shoved the aperture on F8, set the focal length at infinity, and blindly accepted whatever shutter speed the camera decided to give me while in aperture priority. Please don’t write in and say I’m an idiot. I knew that the moment I got on the plane to Cork.

But then I broke what for me is a cardinal rule. My first commandment is, if you don’t know what you’re doing, stop and think. But I didn’t and I carried on regardless and over the next hour I blasted away and filled an 8GB card. Back in the hotel, after several much needed restorative glasses of Jamesons I reviewed the evening’s carnage. I’m not proud of this at all, but there were enough salvageable shots to put a small set together, and the results have already appeared on several national newspaper websites.

And the moral of the tale? Well I’m not sure, but talking the PR boss of Tourism Ireland on the flight home to London I tried to manage his expectations. ‘You see the thing is’ I explained gently, ‘cameras can’t really take photographs in the dark.’ Of course not, said John. That would be silly.

Visit Tourism Ireland at www.tourismireland.com

Nick Smith’s ’10 Questions’ with adventure travel photographer Aldo Pavan as published in Outdoor Photography magazine February 2010 edition

January 22, 2010

10 Questions – Aldo Pavan

With his experimental style and background in philosophy, Aldo Pavan is the ‘thinking man’s’ outdoor photographer. Nick Smith hears his story…

Aldo Pavan is a journalist and freelance photographer specializing in travel reportage. He’s been on hundreds of assignments in five continents, publishing books and working with magazines. He has taught photo-reportage in Milan and is dedicated to photographic experimentation, crossing over into the role of artist.

Born in 1954 in Treviso, Aldo has been a painter since he was young, becoming interested in aesthetics and experimenting in the dark room. After graduating in philosophy, he began writing for the local newspaper Tribuna di Treviso. Since then he’s worked on countless magazine and book projects.

In 2003 he began working on a series of hugely popular photographic books about the rivers of the world. The Ganges, The Nile and The Yellow River are published by Thames and Hudson, with The Mekong and The Danube, lined up for the near future. Another project he is preparing is entitled The Routes of Man, a series of books dedicated to the great trade routes of the world.

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a photographer?

Aldo Pavan: I have always been interested in visual media. I used to paint and draw a lot. My parents had many cameras and I started taking pictures for fun. After my university degree, I began writing for a local newspaper and using my photographs to illustrate my words.

NS: What was your first camera?

AP: With the money I got from my first job I bought a Canon FT 35mm film SLR. I remember that the first reportage I did was about a gypsy camp, but it has never been published because it was too strong. After that I photographed and interviewed a doctor who carried out abortion, which was illegal at that time in Italy. It was a small scoop.

NS: What formal training do you have?

AP: I have a degree in philosophy and I am self-taught in photography. I never took a specific course about it. I studied aesthetics, attending semiotics courses by Umberto Eco at the University of Bologna. I think that to be a good photographer you need to study a lot, as well as working on the field. Studying Roland Barthes is not wasted time.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

AP: I should say that it is very important, but I never did. I had to adapt to what my clients were asking for and sometimes keep my passions quiet to make them happy.

NS: What is the best assignment you have been and so far?

AP: I am doing a series of books about the big rivers of the world. It’s a huge work, first at home and then on the field. To photograph each river I needed from 5 to 8 trips, at least two weeks long. And after shooting I spend two months writing and laying out the book.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

AP: I’d like to answer ‘nothing’. It’s a big game for adults… it’s fun. How can we compare this to some really hard jobs, such as miners, surgeons, judges. I spend too much time away from my family.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

AP: Digital, of course. We don’t use horse carriages to go from Venice to London any more because there are faster, better, more modern means available. There is no competition between film and digital. Digital has endless benefits that give more space to creativity.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from another photographer?

AP: I spent hours studying the forms of Chagall, the colours of Matisse and the portraits of Francis Bacon. I love the shadows of Caravaggio, Titian’s reds and the backdrops of Giorgione. Photography has taken the place of the paintings that illustrated the history of man.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

AP: Photography is a language that works along with traditional media like text and words to form the human being and the society we live in. Working with it is a great privilege.

NS: What makes great travel photograph?

AP: Walking and walking. Good photographs do not come out alone, you have to look for them, chase them. You can get there with patience and research, plus a lot of obstinacy.

Aldo’s Golden Rules

1) Avoid cliché and break aesthetic rules

2) Always look for new ideas while you are shooting

3) Don’t be satisfied – you can always do better

4) Establish good relationships with your subjects

5) Don’t ask your subject to pose – look for a spontaneity

Aldo’s Kit

Cameras: Nikon D300 and Nikon D700

Lenses: 12-24mm, 24-120mm, 35-70mm, 35mm f2.8, zoom 70-200mm, 300mm

Flash: Nikon SB800

Tripod: Manfrotto

Notebook and pen

Check out Aldo Pavan’s work at  www.aldopavan.it

Nick Smith interviews BBC wildlife photographer Doug Allan in Outdoor Photography magazine

December 1, 2009

Into the cold, wet world

BBC wildlife cameraman Doug Allan spends his life in remote, freezing places, quite often underwater. All in the pursuit of that magical image. Nick Smith hears his story…

Doug Allan is a freelance wildlife and documentary photographer and cameraman working underwater, on land and especially on the polar ice. Born in Scotland, he graduated with a degree in marine biology from Stirling University in 1973. This was to propel him into a career in field science that gradually transformed into one of wildlife photography. Today he is one of the leading wildlife photographers of his generation with a feast of credits including the BBC’s  ‘Blue Planet’ and ‘Planet Earth’.

Doug was working as a diver on an Antarctic research station when he met David Attenborough in 1981 while the BBC was filming polar sequences for ‘The Living Planet’. For Doug that was the ‘decisive moment’, as it dawned on him that the cameramen he was watching weren’t doing anything physically that he couldn’t. With his specialist knowledge and prodigious abilities as a diver, all he had to do was ‘work on my photographic skills’. And so a career-long relationship with the legendary presenter was launched.

Much of Doug’s wildlife photography involves physically overcoming the environmental harshness of some of the world’s wildest places and then waiting for his subject’s behaviour to reveal itself. ‘I do like working in really wild situations’ he says. The advent of digital has improved his life no end – he can spend more time underwater without having to surface to reload film. As for processing, he remembers Kodachrome film taking a year to get from Antarctica to a UK lab and back.

Doug has won the underwater category in Wildlife Photographer of the Year twice as well as the Royal Geographical Society’s Cherry Kearton Photography Medal. He has also won Emmy and BAFTA awards for his moving images.

Nick Smith: When did you realise you were going to become a wildlife photographer?

Doug Allan: When I first went to the Antarctic in 1976 I was thrown into an overwintering environment with only about 15 other people on base. Most were photographers and some had a very good eye. With the penguin colonies and the seals on my doorstep a serious interest was kindled.

NS: What was your first camera?

DA: A Petriflex given to me by Dad in 1971. It was a very simple SLR. I don’t think I had a wide- angle lens, just a standard 50mm. For underwater photography it was the old faithful Nikonos II – it was the most advanced then, but no electronics at all.

NS: What formal training do you have?

DA: I didn’t have any. I feel almost more in need of formal training now with digital than I did back in the days when we used to do our own processing. Now there is so much you can do in post processing, and you have to be careful if you want your digital files to be around in 30 years time.

NS: How important is it to specialise?

DA: I’m a specialist in wildlife and wild places with an even narrower niche of cold weather environments both underwater and topside. I don’t shoot weddings. Well, I shot a wedding once as a favour and it was the most traumatic thing I’ve ever done in my life.

NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

DA: It’s hard to pick one or two. What I’m interested in is ‘difficult-to-get-behaviour’ from genuinely wild animals. That’s where I get the buzz – being in the wild and seeing things happening for real. What turns me on is being in the company of big mammals. You can’t hide from a polar bear – he hears and sees as well as you do, and yet his sense of smell is better than a bloodhound. In those situations your body language, behaviour and even what you’re thinking are ultra important. It’s like you have to talk to your subject in a non verbal way.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

DA: It can be frustrating if you’ve put a lot a lot of effort into a shoot and you feel it’s not been given the best chance on screen because the editing or production is sloppy or misses the point. But, mostly I’ve had the chance to work with high class production teams.

NS: Film or digital? Why?

DA: Digital encourages experimentation and as a stills photographer the field is absolutely wide open to interpret whatever you see in whatever way you can imagine. Shooting with film teaches you  the basics very well, with each press of the shutter having an associated cost. There was no alternative when I started. Digital frees you up creatively and the sky’s the limit.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from another photographer?

DA: I just went the classic route – the base I was on in the Antarctic subscribed to National Geographic. We’d look at the pictures and admire them. I’ve always preferred the wide-angle from up close rather than the telephoto. I liked Ernst Haas with his long exposures to experiment with blurring movement. We used to try that on base and quickly realised it was much harder than it looked. Also the early Jacques Cousteau and Hans Hass books influenced me a lot – the idea of exploring the undersea world with a camera.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

DA: I realised after 10 years in Antarctica that photographing and filming animals encapsulated so much of what I enjoyed doing. Travel, adventure, being part of a team, doing something you think is worthwhile – all those things come together in what I do.

NS: What makes a great wildlife photograph?

DA: You have to take yourself to exciting landscapes or put yourself in front of inspiring animals. Unless you’re really interested in your subject you’re not going to catch that special magic.

Doug’s 5 golden rules

1 Look around and find out what impresses you

2 Ask yourself what your shot is trying to convey

3 Stand on the shoulders of the great photographers

4 Get out into inspiring landscapes

5 Underwater, remember: the closer the better

Doug’s gear (stills)

Canon EOS 1Ds-Mk II,

Lenses: 14mm f/2.8, 17-35mm f/2.8, 24-105mm IS f/4, 100-400mm IS, 600mm IS f/4

Seacam housings

http://www.dougallan.com

 

Nick Smith interviews fine art photographer Stuart Klipper in ‘Outdoor Photography’ magazine

November 6, 2009

The art of outdoors

Stuart Klipper is an American fine artist who shoots the world mostly through a Linhof Technorama 617. He tells Nick Smith about his search for the ‘wide-field’

New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography, The Library of Congress, The National Museum of American Art… just a few of the many organisations to have exhibited or collected Stuart Klipper’s photography.

An American fine art photographer with an international reputation, Klipper has spent decades travelling the planet in order to ‘seek out order’. His vision is expressed through a battered old Linhof Technorama 617 that he keeps in a battered old gadget bag. He wears rings of turquoise, sapphire and Navajo silver on every finger. He says the weight of the rings ‘helps to keep my trim on an even keel.’

Stuart Klipper doesn’t take photographs. He prefers to use the word ‘make’ in the way that an artist makes art. His images are panoramas in the 617 format, which he shoots on film. When asked why he prefers the ‘wide-field’ format he simply says ‘because it’s wider’. Sometimes he shoots verticals, but most of the pictures – from North Pole to South Pole and (even rarer) all 50 states of America – are horizontal panoramas.

Nick Smith: When did you first realise you going to become a photographer?

Stuart Klipper: Photography was a hobby among many. I went to college at University of Michigan and I read [John Van Druton’s] ‘I am a camera’. I realised I had a predisposition to seek out some sort of order. I realised I am a camera and so I decided to use one.

NS: What was your first camera?

SK: My dad documented my life with excess beyond even a presidential documentary photographer. Cameras were everywhere, mostly Kodak. My first real camera I got at 13 with my Bah Mitzvah money, a Rolleicord twin lens reflex.

NS: What formal training do you have?

SK: I’m pretty much an autodidact, but I hung around after my degree and took a few courses in the art school there: Phil Davies taught a very technical introduction to photography. There was another fellow that taught the aesthetics and design end of the spectrum.

NS:  How important is it to specialise?

SK: Of all the things I’ve been called in life one of the things I enjoy most is ‘a generalist’. I look at everything with equanimity. I don’t think anything is intrinsically more special than anything else. Everything’s fair game.

NS: What is the best assignment you’ve been on?

SK: Give me some assignments please. About a dozen years ago someone from the New York Times commissioned me to shoot a story about a small city in South Dakota that was remarkably economically successful. I was just going around town photographing street scenes.

NS: What’s the worst thing about being a professional photographer?

SK: You travel a lot and you mostly travel alone. There are certain aspects of the unsought solitude that can get to you. It’s finally started to become a bit corrosive, but you do your work no matter what.

NS: Film of digital why?

SK: I’m not a Luddite and I’m not old fashioned. Film is what the Linhof uses. A consignment of film arrived recently and the rolls all tumbled out. I was surprised by the feeling of looking at all these photographs waiting to be made.

NS: What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from another photographer?

SK: The two photographers that sum it up in one sentence are Ansell Adams and Garry Winogrand. For over 30 years I’ve been a close friend of Lee Friedlander. We hardly ever talk about photography, but there is something osmotic coming through about how to live life as a photographer.

NS: What does photography mean to you?

SK: I have an extremely broad range of interest, and if there is one place where I can synthesise what I know about the world it’s through photography. It’s the most important way of getting a handle on the world, how we all can.

NS: What makes a great photograph?

SK: Photography isn’t about photography; it’s about the world. I just make pictures. There are no rules. Find your own vocabulary.

Klipper’s 5 Golden rules

1)   Find your own vocabulary

2)   Photography isn’t about photography

3)   Know who came before you and what they did

4)   Your equipment is only the toolbox

5)   There are no rules

Klipper’s gear

Cameras: Linhof Technorama 617, Mamiya 7, Konica Hexar

Film: Fuji Provia 100F 120 roll film and Provia 35mm film

Stuart Klipper’s new book of panoramic photography The Antarctic: From the Circle to the Pole has just been published by Chronicle Books and is available on Amazon.