Category Archives: Essays

The Willdora,

Built in 1901 out of Baltic Larch in Scotland, the motor fishing vessel Willdora, answered the call to go to the shores of Dunkirk in 1940 to help rescue the trapped survivors of the British Expeditionary Force.  As time passes fewer and fewer of these vessels survive, the Willdora being an example.  Rescued from total disintegration, she is now receiving the care and attention that such a brave and exceptional lady should, at the hands of a dedicated group of men and women, the Sunderland Maritime Heritage Trust.

The Willdora rescued 200 men from the beach and carried them back to larger vessels waiting off-shore.  Returning for more troops she ran aground and remained there, an enforced sojourn in France for the remainder of the war.

Working with great care and integrity, the Trust is keen to reuse as much of the original material as possible.  The first picture shows details of the hull of the boat.  Using thin laths of larch to fill the gaps between the planks the hope is to make the Willdora ready to participate in the 2018 Tall Ships visit to Sunderland.

The members of SMH are a welcoming group of people.  They are keeping many of the old shipyard skills alive and willingly share these skills with younger apprentices.  Tony Griffiths, Dr John Clarke and I visited the site twice.  The second image shows Tony talking with Martin Dent, the Trust’s treasurer.  The third, fourth and fifth images are from Tony and show the other two members of the troika seeking out the best places from which to photograph the boat.

Also posted in Behind the Scenes

Thoughts on a Project well done!

by John Cogan

It is now the custom that, at the end of any endeavour, you reflect and evaluate. It matters little whether that is a General Election or a photographic project. So, now the dust has settled a little, I shall attempt to put into words the impossible.

From the start, (back in late 2013) to now, the project became somewhat all-consuming. Like many projects, it started small with me approaching a few of the local “movers and shakers”. They were kind enough to agree and the demands placed upon them were minimal, yet the Director of the Sage put me on to Sir Thomas Allen, and from there life became interesting.

These initial forays were also solo efforts and this is where I came to the first momentous decision concerning the logistics of the project. Solo sessions were limiting. They were producing the kinds of results I didn’t want. Those early shoots were stiff and most of the images looked posed. This was partly my fault because I was new to portraiture and felt tongue-tied with the dual task of chat and snap… When it came to the big leap forward and the session with Sir Thomas Allen I needed a fellow photographer…..   Read on

Pictured: on location – John Cogan and Sir Thomas Allen, John Clarke and Stephen Miller

   John Cogan in conversation with Sir Thomas Allen. TG   John Clarke and Steve Miller at the Sage

Darwin and the Self-selection of Good People…..

by John Cogan ARPS

An often asked question is: “How do we select our subjects?” Taken at face value this is an interesting question and one that lies at the heart of our Project. However, there is sometimes the implicit suggestion that we are either unfair in who we have chosen or are being unrepresentative. To be fair to those who ask the question we must concede that there will, inevitably, be unfairness in any project such as this. On a practical level, there is a finite amount of exhibition space wherever we display the final “product”. And should we try and be careful and even-handed in how we select our subjects then the project would come to lack the fresh spontaneity it has developed over the months. Besides, many of those we seek to photograph are suggestions from those we have already photographed. And this is where Darwinian evolution takes a hand and an element of self-selection surfaces to dot “I’s” and cross “T’s”.

Ah, I can almost hear you asking (with a justifiable degree of scepticism), is there some biological and evolutionary imperative at work guiding the Project’s hand, advising our collective consciousness? An interesting thought but the self-selection comes not from our practices but from the practices of our subjects. Comparing the number of invitations we’ve dispatched against the positive responses, our “hit” rate is quite high.

Of those who have agreed to sit/stand or generally do something whilst we click away capturing their light on our sensors, there are certain common factors. At this point Darwin raises his bearded head…..

….. take, for example, Jonathan Ruffer, new owner of Bishop Auckland Castle and saviour of the art collection therein. This man is very busy… he has a City business to run, several projects in the Bishop Auckland area to oversee. How can a man with such pressures upon him have time for a quartet of photographers, regardless of what they might profess to be doing? Yet, some of his precious time is offered, and not only time but access to the state rooms of the Castle.

The time between the invitation sent and the acceptance received was but a few days. A time and date promptly agreed and the quartet arrived to be welcomed with smiles from everyone at the Castle… Jonathan’s PA, Michelle, is efficient and excellent in every way. It was she who listened to our submission, evaluated it and passed on our request to her boss. People like Michelle are indicators of the health of the organisation and invariably herald an acceptance. The PA-cum-Secretaries are always our first point of contact. Those bosses who have “Big Hearts” pick PAs with similar attributes… Generosity is infectious and those who possess it generate a positive approach amongst their staff. Every staff member at Auckland Castle we met was clearly involved and committed. The crackle of efficient co-operation, a sense of a shared direction and the pleasure of working within a humane and caring environment was tangible… and that comes from the top!

Jonathan Ruffer is just one of the many who have made this project such a joy to be part of. When we come to collating the images and printing them up for the exhibition I hope the warmth of each and every one of our subjects can be sensed by those who come to view what we have experience.

Pictured: Jonathon Rufferat Bishop Auckland Castle

Dr John ~ Jonathan Ruffer and one of the saved  paintings eTony ~ three of the team sitting with Jonathan Ruffer eDr John ~ Jonathan Ruffer _1 e

A Different Point of View

John A Clarke ARPS

Even a beginner in the dark art of photography will have been told that finding higher or lower viewpoints can add interest to photographs. The standard position is erect with the camera to the eye, so sitting or climbing to a convenient high point can alter the feel of an image.

 However sometimes human frailty of one sort or another can dictate a forced sedentary lifestyle. In such a case achieving a normal viewpoint becomes a problem, and an elevated one more so, requiring a convenient mound accessible by wheelchair.

 At least one has the advantage of a lower approach to the subject. When I did a lot of environmental portraiture, I often used to squat to achieve this. Squatting now would require a sturdy minder to hoick me up again, but as I am already low down this is not necessary. I’m in good company too. Sebastio Salgado frequently uses a low view point to make his subjects, be they slaves or menial workers, look more dignified. The twin lens Rolleiflex, beloved of so many photographers, had a waist level finder, and had a similar effect. Tom Stoddart uses one for portraiture instead of his Leica.

 There are portrait subjects that do not lend themselves to this approach, especially people with large chins or wrinkly necks, which benefit from a high viewpoint, but the balding will benefit greatly!

 I still have my Rolleiflex….perhaps an even lower angle would work well, or alternatively I could always use it upside down above my head to get that normal viewpoint. Many of us now have cameras with articulated screens, and these are ideal for varying one’s viewpoint. In fact I shall ensure my next camera, available when finances allow, will have just such a feature.

 In summary, being confined to a wheelchair is absolutely no excuse for not taking photographs of the same quality as the able-bodied; although I must admit to some frustration when it comes to landscape work, where most viewpoints can be inaccessible. But, hey, who wants those tripod-hole shots anyway!

 Pictured: portraits of sculptor Ray Lonsdale and the Right Reverend Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham, by John Clarke

           Sculpture and sculptor, Ray Lonsdale-1 by John Clarke    Rt Rev Paul Butler, Bishop of Durham-1 by John Clarke

“Is that who I think it is …?”

Kat Copeland

by John Cogan ARPS

“Is that who I think it is?”  John Clarke listens whilst the young Paratrooper quizzes him about the young blond who holds the attention of five photographers.  All he can do is affirm that this slip of a lass, this slight, svelte young woman with the bright blue eyes and long tresses is, indeed, Katherine Sarah Copeland MBE, known universally as Kat… the winner of the Women’s Lightweight Double Sculls at the 2012 London Olympics.  Her partner then was Sophie Hosking.  Who could forget Kat’s response when told they’d won?  That was one of the highlights of the games.

On a dull day in September we stood on the banks of the Tees, by the Tees Rowing Club and enjoyed her company… Gold medal she might have but her youth and simple joy of being alive, the quizzical expressions that crossed her face and her willingness to stand, lean, run or whatever when asked made the morning.

Was she planning to go to Rio in 2016?  She didn’t know… it depended on selecting the best at the time and there was a lot of competition.  The Team GB success in 2012 had started an avalanche… Dr John and I had seen this phenomenon the previous Sunday when photographing Jessica Eddie, the Durham girl who has represented Team GB in the Women’s Eights (2014 European Championships – Silver, and member of the record-breaking women’s crew that won this year’s Head of the River) and who was mobbed by the youthful beginners at the Durham Amateur Rowing Club.

Kat  Copeland 5 by John Cogan Jess Eddie 1 by John Cogan

Eventually, Kat’s gold medal came out of the back pack and was held for prying lenses.  A profound silence fell amongst as the medal was passed from hand to hand.  Back to Kat and we can see: hands surprisingly only a little calloused by hours of rowing.

Polite, warm and full of such generosity… like so many of those we have met during the course of this project… she has to fly to another meeting.  A water-sprite in faded blue jeans disappearing into the distance, leaving five photographers whose lives had been touched by her kindness.

A complete list of Portraits from the North East subjects can be found in The Story so Far on the About  page of this website

Another North East Portrait Blog…

By John Cogan ARPS

The team of photographers who make up the Portraits from the North East Collective is a varied one.  We have a smattering of street photographers who favour the instinctive approach and a similar number of more formal photographers.  Fortunately, the mix works well.  Going on any shoot together is always a learning process.

Julie is our landscape photographer; her ability to assess a static scene and wait for the light she wants doesn’t quite fit in with our working methods where we may have only 15 minutes to capture the essence of our sitter.  Therefore, when she went on her first outing to The Alnwick Garden to photograph Her Grace, the Duchess of Northumberland, there was a degree of trepidation.  Ah, yes!  Nothing quite like being thrown in at the deep end.  But, Julie is not unique in this.  Faced with meeting a stranger in their “territory” and having to photograph them is daunting for us all.

Our usual method of working is for one of the team to engage the subject in conversation while the others gently and discretely photograph the distracted subject whilst managing to keep the Project’s interlocutor out of the frame.

Her Grace the Duchess of Northumberland and John Cogan by Tony Griffiths

Her Grace the Duchess of Northumberland and John Cogan by Tony Griffiths

Her Grace is one of these people who put you immediately at your ease.  She has the looks of a film star, the sangfroid of Queen Elizabeth and the sparkle of the best Champagne.  I was the talker that day and I never took one photograph!  Like a rabbit in the headlights, I was mesmerised.  Fortunately, the photographs taken of our conversation show what a star Her Grace is… she actually looks interested in what I’m saying!  Yes, well, Oscars all round!

Her Grace the Duchess of Northumberland by Tony Griffiths

Her Grace the Duchess of Northumberland by Tony Griffiths

No matter who the subject is there are always points of contact.  In this case Julie and Her Grace, the Duchess, talked dogs and children.  When we explained our aim: to photograph people of significance in the North East… whether from direct input or example… and to publish the skill and talent we have in the region, she not only agreed with us but offered to host the exhibition.  Hence, our opening date of 5th May at The Alnwick Garden.

And Julie?  She’s very critical of her work, and that is good.  Portrait photography was a break with her traditional practices and way out of her comfort zone, but that’s another aspect of the Project.  There are others who feel the same way:  for Joanne working with the CEO of Caterpillar Trucks UK was a challenge.  Joanne is an experienced and very empathetic portrait photographer but having to produce work that would fit in with the practices of other photographers was a new experience.

No two sessions are ever the same.  The recent shoot with Bishop Paul of Durham took place in the Chapel at Auckland Castle, a venue full of light and white walls… a photographer’s gift.  Not so when it came to Rev Glyn Evans, the City Chaplin for Newcastle.  Photographed in the body of St Andrew’s Church the light from side windows allowed the grey day to creep in.

Bishop Paul by John Clarke ARPS

Bishop Paul by John Clarke ARPS

Rev Glyn Evans by John Cogan ARPS

Rev Glyn Evans by John Cogan ARPS

The past months have been a classroom for all of us.  And it is to the credit of all those involved that any and all assignments have been approached with a sense of professionalism and with skills of the highest calibre.  It is the commitment and photographic sense of my fellow Project members that have ensured the growing collection and the high quality of the portraits.

John Cogan

Visiting the Lord Barnard

The Lord Barnard by Julie Ferry

The Lord Barnard by Julie Ferry

By John Cogan ARPS

We were told this was a portrait session too far.  Sorry, but he won’t agree!  Still, the request reached The Lord Barnard and we waited.

In the intervening days we continued to contact others and went on photo shoots: Roberta Blackman Woods, the MP for Durham City was photographed, as was the CEO and Creative Director of Newcastle’s Dance City… Anthony Baker.  Then we heard that The Lord Barnard had agreed.  He would see us and be photographed.

That week, the first full one in August, was a busy one for the Project: on Wednesday we were sitting on the seafront at Roker photographing BBC’s Jeff Brown.  An amiable chat with a background of the Cat and Dog Steps and the redolent smell of crispy bacon butties.

Early morning on Thursday saw three of us sitting once more in the sun, drinking coffee and talking to the High Sheriff of Northumberland, John Carr-Ellison.  The garden is sublime and little wonder his daughter uses it as a venue for her Vogue fashion shoots.  Bees buzz and we talk of his red squirrels and their intelligent feeding habits and the fact that he has now stopped being the Latvian Consul.  It is a heady mix of good company and fine surroundings.  Eventually, we have to leave, but he has kindly lent us a book… a 1905 who-is-who of Northumberland.  Though there are elements of continuity in the families represented (his own included) in this book (some of those we have already photographed) not one female is represented.

The most striking is on the first page: the Lord Lieutenant of Northumberland is His Grace the Duke of Northumberland, a stern looking, semi-profile shot of His Grace complete with wonderful side-burns.  Our portrait session with the current Lord Lieutenant was very informal and has The Alnwick Garden as a background… and the Lord Lieutenant is Her Grace, the Duchess.

Friday, early morning, and we arrive at Raby Castle.  Access via the portcullis, following the sit-upon gravel-raker as it makes the already pristine pathway even more “formal”, we are taken into the private heart of the Castle, up stairs and along a wonderfully illuminated corridor to a door at the end.  There, in a comfortable room with a spectacular view over the deer paddock, is The Lord Barnard.  Though ninety years old he greets us warmly, obliges us by sitting where asked and turning this way and that.

Standing back and observing the shoot three factors leap out at me: Lord Barnard’s eyes are very alive; they miss nothing.  I notice his hands: long, fine and still.  They hold a stick, his favourite it transpires.  A hound’s head has been carved into the natural curve of the handle.  It has the patina of age and from much handling.  Both man and hound’s head become powerful elements in the photographs as both Lord Barnard and photographers settle into the shoot.

Relaxed in a comfortable linen jacket, The Lord Barnard is the epitome of casual sophistication.  Man and jacket are a partnership.  Allied to the hound-head stick, the whole is a personification of the man and the context.  The room and the man, and the very feel of things from the stack of magazines to the family portraits and the flowers on the round, Georgian table have the feel of a world apart, a well-loved, well-lived life.  This is the man as he is.  Vanity has little part in his life.

An easy chair is placed next to his laptop. In one corner are a couple of CCTV monitors.  Nothing is allowed to escape his interest…

We retire after a short while… rather more than our allotted time.  The images we have are good.  In fact, several have been submitted to the National Portrait Gallery for consideration by their September Assessment Panel.  Once more, the kindness and generous spirit of North Eastern people have gifted us with photographic gems.

John Cogan