Category Archives: Behind the Scenes

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 Essays

Out on the Road

Tony Griffiths and Joanne Clarke travelled north, to Hexham, to photograph the acoustic guitar and mandolin maker, Stefan Sobell.  Stefan is one of those magicians who produce musical instruments of superb quality whilst making it look easy, which it certainly isn’t.  There are samples of photographs from that shoot below.

Dr John Clarke was amongst the group who went to photograph Marv at Muddy Fingers potters.  There, Marv makes unique items for high-end restaurants and Michelin-Starred chefs.

Dr John Clarke at Marv the potters

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Also posted in News

Glass Walls and Narrow Lanes

by John Cogan ARPS

The venue is Sunderland’s National Glass Centre. Overlooking the River Wear, the wall of glass, allows for an uninterrupted view of traffic and the monstrous red-painted vessel at rest opposite. Stand still and sample the light. It fills every nook and cranny, adds lustre to the pale walls, and provides the perfectly balanced background for our portrait session. It is early morning and the Centre is opening, making ready for the first visitors. Peter Walton and I are there to photograph Marie Nixon. She is the CEO of Sunderland University Students’ Union, is on the board of Music, Arts and Culture Trust and was once member of the Indie Rock band Kenikie. Marie Is a Sunderland girl. She is the perfect subject; sitting with her coffee and listening while we explain the project. Occasionally, she asks a question or adds a comment. Our project has engaged her interest.

The contemporary backgrounds in the Centre are appropriate for this young woman. Fortunately, the bright sunlight of the morning is fading to a paler blue and a layer of fine cloud diffuses the light. Marie’s colouring and this softer light are combinations that provide an ideal photographic opportunity.

The shoot ends and Peter and I leave Newcastle, and travel along the A68 towards Haydon Bridge. Sited high on the valley side overlooking the town and the river is the home of one of the North East’s best loved comedians: Brendan Healy. To reach this eerie we snake our way along single-track lanes, through farmyards and pass solid, stone dwellings. There is something comforting in this raw, rural landscape.

To call Brendan just a comedian is the same as saying Woody Allen is just a stand-up. He started his life in entertainment as a musician with groups such as Lindisfarne. As an actor, Brendan Healy has appeared in many classic television programmes such as Auf Weidersehen Pet, Boon, Spender, Byker Grove, Coronation Street and the Catherine Cookson series, amongst so many others. His theatrical CV includes everything from Shakespeare to pantomime, musicals like West Side Story to comedy plays like Andy Capp. He has written, produced, directed and even composed the music for many more. For West Side Story he even orchestrated the fight scenes.

Performing with John Miles and two years on the road with Lindisfarne merely adds to this entertainment polymath’s biography. Generous, and another subject supportive of the project, Brendan takes us where he knows the lighting will be perfect, and it was. Evening light slopes in from the west, warm and subtle, only partially filtered by the leafless trees that surround us. Brendan shivers and assumes a role, mugging for the camera. The shoot eventually produces two distinct types of photographs: the comic mask and the intimately reflective.

A single day of photography made special by the subjects: their openness, their commitment and generosity brighten the winter gloom. Being a Yorkshireman Brendan found time to joke about a dyslexic Yorkshireman wearing his Cat Flap…. Ah, well! Even that failed to dampen feeling good

John Cogan

Pictured:  Brendan Healy and Marie Nixon photographed by John Cogan

      Marie Nixon at the Glass Centre  Marie Nixon and the white wall in mono

           Brendan Healy through the diamond window       Brendan Healy shivering for comic effect 


One busy week on the Portraits from the North East Project

by Peter Walton

Whilst we wait with patient optimism for the outcome of our Arts Council grant application, life goes on, or should I say… the shutter keeps moving, and we push on researching and photographing subjects for this project.

Last week was as diverse and exciting as it gets.

On Monday John Cogan and I met the incredible Dr Hari Shukla, OBE who has devoted his life to Race Relations. He takes a keen interest in inter faith relationships and is involved with the coordination of a faith leaders group in Newcastle upon Tyne. Hari is a man you can listen to for ages, his enthusiasm and twinkle in his eye made great photography for a man in his 80’s.

Monday afternoon saw John and I photographing Tom Capeling, a local lad done good, after leaving Bede School Sunderland at 16 he rose to the dizzy heights as Chief Fire Officer for Tyne and Wear.

Tom was easy going and good to chat too, this always makes portraiture a lot easier if the subject is relaxed with you and you can bring out their character and a natural smile.

Wednesday took John Clarke and John Cogan to Northumbria Police Headquarters to photograph Chief Constable Sue Sim who was apparently a dream to work with. The two John’s still had smiles on their faces when we met again a couple of days later!

Thursday was the turn of Steve Howey, who as a schoolboy at St Cuthbert’s Primary School in Sunderland was spotted by football scouts that led to a career with Newcastle United, Manchester United and England. Steve now works for the Premier League and the British Council teaching football coaching all over the world. Julie Ferry and I caught up with Steve at his home and enjoyed coffee and a good chat. A really nice guy who was good to work with.

Friday was the day that the two John’s, Jed Wee and I visited Baroness Tanni Grey- Thompson at her home in Eaglescliffe. Tanni spends four days a week in the House of Lords and thanks to the persuasive skills of our leader John Cogan she agreed to see us on Friday. This was such a pleasure and experience to photograph a really nice person who was so easy to get on with.

If you think that was a full week well we’re not finished yet!

On Friday I had a call from Malcolm Gerrie, the man behind the TV shows The Tube, The Brits and the Baftas. He was responding to my letter and was in Tyneside at the weekend. Ian Stafford and I met Malcolm on Saturday at the Dog Leap stairs in Newcastle at his request as that is where The Animals were photographed when they rose to fame in the 1960’s although none of you will remember the 60’s!?

Malcolm used to be a teacher at Ryhope Grammar School, did a stage production of the Rock Opera Tommy at the school, and David Puttnam came to see it, the rest is history.

Malcolm is really interested in the project and has asked to be kept informed. He is a busy man who spends most of his time in London but managed to squeeze us in between meetings with Bob Geldof and Robert Plant. Now how’s that for name dropping!

Things are getting really busy behind the scenes and ‘on stage’ with this project. We do appreciate the work the team is doing to pull this together and especially John Cogan who spends many hours researching subjects and getting in touch with them.

It will all be worth it, I am convinced of that.

Clockwise from top left: Hari Shulka, Steve Howie, Malcolm Gerrie, Tom Capeling, Tanni Grey-Thompson photographed by Peter Walton

   peterwalton Hari Shulka171114_05peterwalton Steve Howey201114_02peterwalton Malcolm Gerrie221114_09

          peterwalton TanniGThompson211114_04peterwalton Tom Capeling171114_05

A Visit to the Medical School

by John Clarke ARPS

On Friday 31st October the team, Peter Walton, Julie Ferry, Ian Stafford and myself were invited to Newcastle Medical School to photograph Professor Doug Turnbull. He is the leader of the Mitochondrial Research Unit based there. This is currently in the news, due to the exciting work they are doing on some rare but devastating hereditary diseases that are carried by the mitochondria, which are the bits of genetic material outside the nucleus of the cell. Permission for human trials is now being sought in Parliament. The research gives hope to couples who, until now, have been unable to have babies unaffected by devastating genetic disease, usually incompatible with survival.

Professor Turnbull had helpfully arranged a reserved disabled parking space, so we all piled into my car. On arrival we made our way to the unit, where we were made comfortable by the staff. The Prof arrived before our booked time, and had given considerable thought to suitable backgrounds, offering a choice of three. We chose the laboratory and a large poster showing the Departments name with illustrations of the work they do.

The whole experience was made very pleasant by his friendly attitude, and being able to photograph in his laboratory was a real bonus. Microscopes seem a lot bigger than I remember at my medical school. He comes across as modest and self-effacing in spite of his achievements – he certainly tolerated us for as long as we needed and was also able to arrange introductions to photograph other important figures in the North East medical world.

In need of refreshments after our efforts we repaired to the students’ cafe, safe in the knowledge that we didn’t have to tie an absent fellow member, renowned for his old world charm, to his chair to avoid a diplomatic incident with the mainly female medical student population.

Pictured: Professor Doug Turnbull photographed by John Clarke

      Doug Turnbull 3 by John ClarkeDoug Turnbull 1 by John Clarke

A Trip to Coquet Island and more …

John Cogan ARPS

Busy, busy…. After the photo shoot with Steve Cram the Project hasn’t had much of a rest. John Clarke (whose silent motorised wheel chair makes him a photographic equivalent of Carlos the Jackal) took a small group to photograph Professor, Dr Douglas Turnbull, top man in the field of neurological and genetic research.

A trip to the closed Coquet Island for Joe Grabham and yours truly meant a boat ride across calm waters, in powerful sunshine, surrounded by male Eider Ducks eyeing up the female Eiders…. The return trip was rougher… The wind had suddenly backed from the North and that made a considerable difference. We were there to photograph the senior RSPB warden… Paul Morrison. This 65 year old bundle of humour and generosity has worked hard with his small team to create an environment that is safe and welcoming to many endangered species of birds… and he was wearing shorts!

Back on dry land, Joe and I travelled to meet Stephen Fitch, helmsman of the D-type RNLI inshore lifeboat. Blyth’s RNLI station covers a stretch of difficult coastline between the all-weather boats up at Amble and down the coast at Tynemouth. Along with the helicopters at Boulmer RAF station, it’s indicative of just how dangerous this stretch of coastline can be.

 The final shoot of this hectic week was the Gateshead MP Ian Mearns. Affable and generous, an MP of some standing. Ian proved not only a willing subject but a willing supporter of the project and gladly provided names and contacts for future portrait sessions.

Once again, a great “Thank You” to everyone concerned.

Pictured clockwise from top left: Ian Mearns, Joe with Stephen Fitch, Coquet Island, Joe with Paul Morrison, Doug Turnbull

Ian Mearns MP 3 Joe and Steve at RNLI Blyth 2 Coquet Island lighthouse

    Doug Turnbull by sign Joe and Paul Morrison 1

Steve Cram and a Sunny Morning in Chollerford

by John Cogan ARPS

The North Tyne ambles by whilst a couple of fishermen cast their lines in the hope of a salmon. These monumental-sized fish occasionally leap and ruffle the midday calm.

Stephen Cram, in his youth known as “The Jarrow Arrow”, leans against the fragile railings and talks about Africa and the changing life of the Masai people of Kenya. He is animated and knowledgeable. He’s been there and gone beyond the normal tourist spots. We listen carefully. He has the easy authority of an intelligent man committed to his subject… and is as slim and loose-limbed as he was back in the day when he was a world class runner. His mobile face switches from serious to laughter and back with the ease of the practiced raconteur. It is one of those easy photo shoots when the subject is relaxed and enjoying the practiced banter of the photographers.

His status as a solid, committed and serious Sunderland AFC supporter has led him into the occasional dangerous situation. He’s an icon of the region and therefore an easy target. Peter talks to him of a time when he (Peter) shared a patrol with Steve’s policeman dad.

There is obvious pride in his voice when the subject turns to his role as Chancellor of Sunderland University. Over the past few years the University has grown into a dominant force in the region ; perhaps not with the same “name” as a couple of its near neighbours but a growing reputation for quality and care. It was and still is the country’s top University for Pharmacy.

Salmon continue to make ripples on the silk-smooth surface of the Tyne. Foam bergs float along; alien species from some intrusive industrial process, agitated by the threshing of a weir up river. The sun is strong and time glides by like the flow of the river and soon the session ends. Steve has other commitments and we four decide it is time to find a suitable place for a meal… we go to Corbridge and eat at the rather aptly named Angel… With my girth this could well be a scene from Pickwick Papers but, thankfully, not recorded photographically.

Pictured: in conversation with Steve Cram, and Steve Cram photographed by John Cogan  

20141029 066 In conversation with Steve Cram Steve Cram. Photo John Cogan

An Afternoon at Bessie Surtees House

by John Cogan ARPS

English Heritage’s Bessie Surtees House, on Newcastle’s Quayside, is a remarkable house and not only because it was built in the mid-1600s. Granted, it has all the necessary attributes: the half-timbering; the hidden jetty structure; the small mullion windows and heavy oak doors strengthened by a miscellany of hand-forged metal nails. What makes it extra remarkable is its size. This, by Jacobean standards, is a sky-scraper! There is a sense that its current position, so close to bars and past nights of inebriation, has given it a somewhat intoxicated tilt, but that’s not Newcastle Brown… it’s just the penalty of being old. Standing quayside for 400 plus years there is little wonder it’s settled into a comfortable shape but these houses were built to last, they were the apotheosis of wealth and stability, the mercantile class advertising their respectability and status.

 Back to the photo shoot where we were made most welcome. Graham Saunders, the regional director, along with Nicola and Michelle, his assistants, patiently answered our questions. Initially, Graham stood by the window but the room is dominated by a fireplace that is so spectacular that it demands your attention. Ignore it at your peril. Drawn like a piece of metal to a magnet Graham drifts over to stand by the fireplace knowing that it is impossible to compete with its carvings and plasterwork.

 Outside, with the vast bulk of the house as a backdrop, Graham generously posed in the bitter wind that assailed us. Gratefully, his short hair and lack of a reddening nose, made making those pictures easier than anticipated. We were able to spend nearly an hour, a somewhat magical hour, in these pleasant, post-medieval surroundings… There is a certain, subtle quality of light coming through the old, floated-glass windows. There is a mellow light emanating from deep within the highly polished floorboards. From the hand-crafted furniture comes the smell of oak.

 Entry to the property is free and for an investment of time, say half an hour, you can experience a sense of times past and people whose lives have been lived. These sensations are palpable… Just look up and marvel at the plaster ceiling with its Tudor roses, Fleur de Lise and entwined flora. The walls are covered in oak panels. There are sections decorated with linen-fold carvings, where you can sense the hand of a craftsman. From the architrave, cherubs look down with their puffed-out cheeks and tight wings. It is a marvel! Yet, once you learn that the ceiling was not originally worked on site, though it is contemporary to Bessie’s house, but removed from a building further down the Quayside, the skill of, and care taken by, English Heritage is humbling.

Fortunately for us, groups like English Heritage and the National Trust work hard on our behalf. To afford us a wee segment of their busy day is an honour and a validation if the Portraits Project. We must be doing something right.

 Pictured: Graham Saunders, Jacobean Cherub and date plaque in the fireplace. Photos John Cogan

Date plaque on the fireplaceGraham Saunders inside Bessie Surtees HouseGraham Saunders inside Bessie Surtees House Date plaque on the fireplaceone of the jacobean cherubs

Stephen Miller and Gold Medals at the Sage

John Cogan ARPS

There is a casual assortment of Olympic Gold Medals scattered across the restaurant table. They cover Olympics from Atlanta, Athens, Sydney and Beijing. As people walk past they pause to take in the spectacle. Some even divert their passage to come close to us. The problem for them is who to attribute the medals to. Looking closely at the group at the table it should be clear… Stephen Miller stands out as the athlete though our own Joanne Coates qualifies. As this procession passes by Stephen is more interested in discussing motorized wheelchairs with Dr John. They’re like two petrol-heads swapping performance data about a twin-carb version of a Renault Clio. By some interference from the weird of photo-shoots they both have the same model and make of wheelchair. Stephen’s, however, has a beanstalk seat which, at the press of a button, raises him a further four feet off the ground. Challenged by some competitive little devil, Stephen proceeds to do a wheelie much to Dr John’s obvious delight which is leavened by a modicum of envy. When we move outside the two of them race across the Sage, and once outside there is no stopping them!

The banter is warm and Stephen a good source of dry one-liners. Rachel, his wife, is concerned Dr John’s wheelchair shines from energetic polishing whilst Stephen’s still has field dirt. There is never any problem with the taking of photographs and Joanne, new to our team, soon finds her initial reserve disappears as the Canon 5D Mark III, with BIG lens goes about its business and she takes picture after picture. Eventually, after over an hour, they leave us all the better for sharing time with them. Stephen is a modest, humorous and gentle man. Even the medals are kept in nothing more glamorous than an old Co-operative Bank cash bag. He is modest about his fame and when people approach him he is gracious and patient.

But, it is his eyes that you will remember… his intense gaze, the way they are intent upon knowing who you are. His eyes and the easy way he laughs these are part of the special person that he undoubtedly is. If you have a chance, the photo exhibition of his training regime, called 100%, is worth a visit… it’s in the Sports Centre of Northumbria University.

Throughout this project we have met, and are meeting, so many wonderful people. To Joanne and Dr John I say “Thanks” for being there and making the shoot a pleasure… and to Rachel and Stephan Miller a great big thanks for their generosity and kindness. This photo is Joanne’s first for the Project and it’s a beauty…

Pictured: the black and white portrait of Stephen Miller is by Joanne Coates, the other by John Cogan

 See also Dr John Clarke’s article, ‘A Different Point of View’ below

Stephen Miller by John Cogan Stephen Miller-1 by Joanne Coates

North East MPs Part One …

John Cogan ARPS

We have a full set of portraits of Sunderland and Newcastle Members of Parliament; all six of them.  After so much negative press concerning salaries and expenses claims for this, that and the other; it has been refreshing to meet, and photograph, MPs who are generous with their time and seem genuinely committed to doing a good job, to making a difference.

 Of the six Members only one is male.  Of the six shoots the locations were sometimes “interesting”… Chi Onwurah (Newcastle Central) was photographed outside Newcastle Civic Centre, under the barrel vaulting.  Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle South) sat in the garden of Victory House and stood amongst the tangle of rigging of a pirate ship in a children’s play park.

 With the exception of Nick Brown (born in Kent) the others are all very local, born and bred within sight of their constituency offices.  Perhaps one should not be surprised that, considering their urban constituencies, they are all members of the Labour Party.  Nor should we be surprised that their obvious talents have been rewarded with shadow ministerial posts.

Pictured, clockwise from top left: Sharon Hodgson, Bridget Phillipson, Catherine McKinnel, Nick Brown, Julie Elliott, Chi Onwurah

 Sharon Hodgson MP. jc Bridget Phillipson MP. jc Catherine McKinnell MP. jc

Chi Onwurah MP. jc Julie Elliott MP. tg Nick Brown MP. jc