Top: World's first 360-degree Panorama of Ushguli, Svaneti, Georgia, Feb 24/2009, from 12 separate photos...

Saturday, 7 April 2007

Etseri and Ushba, August 2004

Another journey which gave me much to dream about before it happened. Nodar's brother Sergo and I crossed a bridge over the Inguri from Etseri and then climbed and crossed the "mountain wall", taking about six hours to reach several log cabins on the other side. Here a few families spend the summer, grazing and milking their cattle, making nationally famous sulguni cheese and sending it back to Etseri weekly for sale elsewhere.

Sounds a simple trip, right? At one point early on, before we even crossed the river, my horse was going downhill at such a steep angle that I almost fell over its head, yelling in fear. On the other side we had to stumble, mounted, over an ice-and-snow bridge on a tributary to the main river. Then the long climb; glorious views, even Ushba showing through the clouds - without that peak I might not have bothered to shoot, so important is it; not far down to the cabins after that. After overnighting there I had new views the next morning, including one for the cover of a book on Svaneti I'm slowly writing. Mountainscapes gradually shrugging off their veils of cloud; even a short rainbow.

The trek back to Etseri was mostly downwards, down the mountain wall, and this is when it really got insane. Rain in the night had made the leaf-strewn ground slippery, and the horses made tiny mincing steps as they cautiously felt their way. Sensible enough: but at this rate it would take a very long time to get home. There was nothing for it but to speed things up. I followed my host's lead as we dismounted. Then all we could do was run down the blasted mountain pulling the horses behind us - two not huge men descending at a steep angle with large beasts slipping and sliding and snorting down their necks for several hours.

I had my photographs, the journey was behind me. Was it worth it? Well, I survived. Will I always?

A footnote to the story is that, of all the films from all three of my visits to Svaneti in 2005, only a single roll remains. It's the set with the wall-crossing trip's best shots on it, mercifully; but lost somewhere in Canada, stolen from an unlocked mailbox where well-meaning friends left them, are more views of Ushba, and all the frames from only my third ever trip to Ushguli. Such is life, occasionally tragic. Move on.

The upper is newly axe-cut wood for the fireplace; the lower, the inside of worm-eaten wood.

Doors of the "new" church, Etseri, November 2003

"New" because although it's said to have been built during a visit by Queen Tamar in the 13th century, there are ruins of a tiny, much older church in Etseri as well. These doors are supposed to have been moved from that church to the "new" one, and are apparently about 1500 years old. But this has not been tested, to my knowledge.

Nodar's Aunt Lyuba, Etseri, November 2003
She is in her eighties, and has been bedridden for some years, cared for by her three children. Always writing. The portrait at right is her many decades ago. In 2005 I was able to acquire a wheelchair from Beteli, a Christian NGO in Georgia, and take it up with me; it was a joy to see her outside in it, among the flowers of summer.

It may now be permitted to photograph concerts of Georgia's spectacular Sukhishvili national dancers, but several years ago it wasn't. I snuck my camera in several times anyway, in a plastic bag, and shot on slow shutter speeds without flash until one of the ushers found me and told me to stop. The conditions forced the way of shooting, with blur resulting - but what better to capture motion from dance than blur anyway?

Leaf, Spokane, WA, USA, November 2005
I needed sunlight coming through part of this leaf to contrast with the rest of its front-lit structure.
Dew on grass, Spokane, WA, USA, November 2005

The macro world again, for those who look inwards.

Friday, 6 April 2007

Horse's eye, Spokane, WA, USA, November 2005

Another example of a photograph which started off as a vision - reflect a landscape in a horse's eye. My Svan cap and camera are in there too, almost exactly in the eye's centre. I took quite a few shots as one cannot tell a horse to stand perfectly still and not blink! This is the last frame.

Dew on grass, Spokane, WA, USA, November 2005

The macro world again, for those who look inwards.

And now back to the West for a bit.

Ice, Spokane, WA, USA, November 2005

Just ice in a bucket, closeup.

Rivne, Ukraine, 1992

A noteworthy communist satellite propaganda piece. The former USSR is dotted with communist relics of various sizes in sculpture, murals and other art forms; slowly they are disappearing, needing documentation.

Cleaning, St Peter and Paul Fortress, St Petersburg, 1993

Here I was using the compositional Rule of Thirds (roughly) to place the man, also allowing the strongest lines to lead the viewer to him. All three primary colours are present, and his small amount of bright red draws the eye in too.

Palace Square, St Petersburg, 7 November 1992

The date and location are significant: The 75th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution (old calendar). This was their last big rally. I was showing some guests around, and they understood that I had to leave them for a bit to find a location from which to photograph. Some minutes later they saw me standing on top of a minivan! Seeing other reporters doing this gave me boldness to clamber up, needing height as usual in the crowd. I only wish my friends could have got a picture of me up there. Snow was swirling down in big flakes and I had to change film in the middle of it. But I got what I was after.

Conscript, St Petersburg, May 1993

I don't know military uniform details, but he looks young and shy enough just to have started. Another shot which only required the subject not to move from where and how I found him.

Aleksandr Nevskiy Square Metro Station, St Petersburg, June 1993

Centuries before St Petersburg existed (it was begun in 1703), an important battle between th Russians led by Aleksandr Nevskiy and the Teutons was fought here, and won by the former. This mosaic commemorates the event.

St Petersburg-Murmansk train, 1992
A very difficult slide to scan as it is quite underexposed. The positions of the characters, breaking a rule of composition - looking away from each other and out of the frame - gives it a negative feeling: Wish I was somewhere else, this is a sad song. Deep blacks emphasize the mood.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

Just outside St Petersburg, this is the festival celebrating the end of long winter and beginning of its surrender to glorious spring at last. There are pantomimes of a spellbound young lady Spring being set free, a bonfire, pre-Christian foods such as pancakes and eggs, and plenty of good traditional Russian music and dancing.

Lenin's Choice, St Petersburg, June 1993
I don't know how long this billboard was allowed to remain - not just that at a certain angle, Lenin was pointing to Coca Cola, but that he would be endorsing WHATEVER was advertised there. I took advantage, though: setting up my tripod at the required angle, and waiting with a slow shutter speed for a red Lada car to come through and blur itself into an echo of the Coke logo.

Chopping meat, Murmansk, Russia, 1992
The ever-present butcher's axe... look out for bone chips as you chew.

Moscow, USSR, August 19, 1991
Second from my "Gorbachev Coup" slide set. There were so many photographers in the crowds, I felt quite safe shooting everything which was happening, even though I had little understanding of what it was all about at the time.
St Basil's Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow, August 1991
The reflection and the art, but not the reality; the viewer must recreate this from what can be seen. I love finding layered scenes like this, with different versions of the same thing.

Cat, Ufa, Bashkiria, Urals, Russia, September 1993
The picture of relaxed, not-a-care-in-the-world peace and contentment. JS, this one's for you.

Grandmother, Ufa, Bashkiria, Urals, Russia, September 1993
She was in a home for the elderly which I visited. Lovely old face, witness to and survivor of most if not all of the 20th century's calamities.

Woodsman, Birsk, Bashkiria, Urals, Russia, September 1993
All I had to do was ask him not to move from his perfect pose.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

Railway Station, Urals, Russia, April 1993

Ah, Russian trains... I clocked up some 1200 hours on them, going as far east as Novosibirsk, capital of Siberia. I love them for the sense of immensity they give to the country - flying across it really avoids this, and (as has been said) causes one's soul to be left far behind, resulting in jetlag. In the 1990s it was like this: There are foldout seats in the wagon corridors; samovars boil water for tea, coffee, soup or whatever; one gets to know one's neighbours; children run free, safe; the restaurant car is also quite safe healthwise; the 4-berth's beds give a good night's rest (assuming you can sleep while in motion, and earplugs are a good idea also); and the country tranquilly rolls by the windows for days at a time. In short, what's the hurry? This is all part of the experience of travel in the largest country in the world.

(I think she didn't realise that my lens was wide enough to include her in the shot. Her arm makes a nice counterpoint line to that of the train going to the vanishing point, and also forms part of a triangle with the train and the railway station.)

Neva R., St Petersburg, January 1993

Part of the Leningrad Blockade memorial event is the lighting of these huge torches.

St Peter and Paul Fortress, St Petersburg, Russia, January 1993

Every January there is a memorial day for the 900-day WWII German Blockade of Leningrad, as St P was known for most of its communist years. Up to a million people died in the city, but it didn't surrender (or wasn't allowed to). This is the only regular fireworks event which happens when the night is dark, i.e. in winter; the others have disappointingly light "White Nights" skies.

The general technique for shooting fireworks at night requires a tripod and an open shutter. Keep a piece of black card over the open shutter between bursts of fireworks, and snatch it away when you want to record them. Expose as many as you want on a single frame, being aware that exposure is affected by this. It calls for some experimentation.

Nevskiy Prospekt, St Petersburg, April 1993
A bridge over one of the many canals in the "Venice of the North".

Kanal Griboyedova, St Petersburg, June 1992

A bemused gryphon watches over some lost tourists in the city centre.

Tony and Vladimir, Murmansk, Russia, October 1993

My first trip to Murmansk, above the Arctic Circle, 28 hours by train from St Petersburg. There are still many images of Lenin around Russia, both pictorial and sculptural. The resemblance is unfortunate, but has its uses; and at least I don't look like Stalin! (Apologies to the Georgians for that comment. Nothing personal.)

Tuesday, 3 April 2007

Kremlin Panorama, Moscow, USSR, July 1991
The other camera I had on my first trip to the USSR was a disposable 35mm panoramic job with preloaded film, just for kicks. No great art resulted, but I was pleased with most of the results anyway, enjoying the format change.

Prison, Birsk, Bashkiria, Urals, Russia, September 1993
Someone seems to have attempted an escape, causing one to wonder whether it was a success.
Above Brasov, Romania, May 1992

(A break from Georgia.)

Brasov is a beautiful city in the mountains of Romania; this was from a restaurant overlooking it. I like all the diagonals it offered.

Sacrifice, Etseri, November 2002

While we're on the subject of death and memorials...

The head of the bull sacrificed at Nodar's father's year memorial. It stayed in this room, along with gifts of food and drink and portraits of both parents, all day long.

Memorial "postbox", lower Svaneti, October 2002
At first I thought these things were actually postboxes, except that sometimes they are found far from a house. The idea is to situate the box as close as possible to where the person died (often from drinking and driving, thus a road death). Food and drink are left in it so that those who come along can toast the memory of the reparted - and hopefully not get drunk themselves in the process.
Nodar's father's funeral memorial feast, Etseri, November 2001

Fully one-third of my many trips to Svaneti have involved funerals of people I knew. This dear old man, 82, was in Tbilisi for some routine medical checkup stuff, and died in his son's arms. I was out of the country at the time, and came back to the news. Nodar was already in Etseri, arranging the funeral. Some of his colleagues and I travelled up, and arrived just as the casket was processing up to the burial site. Lots of emotion, screaming and wailing - as is done here. One of my portraits was used to make the traditional engraved likeness on the headstone, a great honour. There were three tables (supra) like this one, all - as is required at any proper meal in Georgia - laden with vastly more than too much food, for hundreds of guests.

Becho is further up from Etseri on the road to Mestia.
Ushba and my shadow; Ushba and the River

Stream, Etseri, August 2001

Water is a huge subject for me, along with reflections on it. This humble stream is not often so colourful, but I see it every day when I'm "at home" in Etseri. So, plenty of time for different moods to present themselves.

Photography is mostly about a) freeing oneself from needing to think about how the equipment works and b) seeing in new ways, which are often inner visions brought to realisation.

Mt Ushba nr Etseri, August 2001

I look for any new angle I can find on this well-known mountain, to present it differently from anyone else. It's sort of like "a million views of Mt. Fuji" for me.

Hen and chicks, Etseri, August 2001

More looking for new views on the mundane. Free range chickens? Absolutely. And something I'd never seen before: how the chicks can disappear in their mother's plumage.

Monday, 2 April 2007

An expedition by horseback above Etseri in the direction of famous Mt. Ushba, August 2001

(Top) The shack where we slept the night, temporarily used by farmers during the busy season. No electricity; dirt floor; wood heating, water by stream. But snug and cosy.

(Going down) Another example of: great excitment at the scene before me, shooting quite a few frames; disappointment with the prints from negative - too contrasty!; delighted rediscovery from scanning the negs. Ushba reflected: what a gift. The clouds just add drama for those who know how fickle and shy this mountain can be.

On the way back, overnight above Etseri; next morning, watching the scene emerge from clouds below.

Ancient church, isolated but not by any means forgotten or unused.

Trying for maximum layering of information with my 24mm wideangle lens, from close cracked pond mud to pond bottom to reflection to reality.