Sunday, June 29, 2014

Jagwar Ma - Guilty as Charged

Last night they played the Park Stage at Glastonbury to a crowd of thousands, but a couple of weeks ago Jagwar Ma performed in front of what is likely to be their smallest crowd this year, in The Old Crown Courts in Bristol.  The Aussie three piece are hard to pigeonhole with a psych/electro/indie/rock sound moulded by the Sydney synth scene, and in such an intimate setting (three people deep from the front row to the sound desk) they rattled the roof of the old, crumbling, building.

I was there to shoot the event for Nokia, who put on the gig as one of their #LumiaLive sessions featuring rising stars in unique settings.  I love the challenge that these Lumia Live sessions present, with the usual bright, flashing, lights of a live performance paired with the less than standard locations - there's no getting a media pass to get side-of-stage here, as the audience filled the judges bench, jurors stand, witness boxes and gallery.  I had to climb around furniture and crawl between feet to get the angles that I was after, but that's what I love about these shows.  I also took portraits of the band in just about the creepiest location that I've ever used for a shoot - the dark old jail cells in the basement beneath the courts.  

Jagwar Ma played a storming set and frontman Gabriel Winterfield even managed to make light of the fact that, what with the previous gig that they played in Bristol being aboard a boat, perhaps the person in charge of their bookings was making a joke at the expense of their nationality.  The band are based in the UK now, however, and with Noel Gallagher hanging his hopes for independent music on them they look set to maintain their rapid trajectory.

As usual, pioneering French music film makers La Blogothéque were on hand with a dazzling amount of kit to film the performance…check it out below.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Ra Expeditions

Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) was a renowned Norwegian archaeologist, anthropologist and explorer: a social scientist who backed up his theories about the spread of ancient cultures and population migrations across the ocean by testing them on a 1:1 scale.  In 1947 Heyerdahl skippered the Kon Tiki, a balsa wood raft with a crew of 5 other Scandinavians, 6000km from the west coast of South America to Polynesia in a demonstration of his theory of how the South Pacific was originally populated.  Then in 1970 he made two expeditions on boats made of papyrus reeds (Ra I&II) to prove his idea that the ancient, sun-worshipping, pyramid cultures on either side of the Atlantic Ocean in Egypt and Mexico could have been the result of a trans-atlantic voyage on a reed boat rather than just being down to coincidence as many at the time thought.  He stepped right into an ongoing debate between two schools of archaeological and anthropological thought, those who believed that ancient cultures on either side of the Atlantic developed in isolation, and those "diffusionists" who argues that there had been cultural exchanges pre-Columbus.  The central pillar to Heyerdahl's backing of diffusion theories was the existence of reed boats of startling similar designs from as far afield as Ethiopia (at the source of the River Nile) and Easter Island.  In comparison to these two points on the map where reed boats were still in sporadic use, the distance between Morocco and the West Indies didn't seem so far after all.
Ra I encountered difficulties shortly after embarking from Safi and starting to break apart, limping a fair way across the Atlantic before finally being abandoned to the depths.  Ra II built on the design and construction lessons learnt from the failings of Ra I, and arrived in Bridgetown, Barbados with all eight crew members and the ship's mascots (a duck and a monkey) safe and well.

Heyerdahl's expeditions fostered in him a strong sense of humanity and the environment.  He observed the degradation of the marine environment on his voyages over forty years ago and became a global advocate of marine environmental causes.  He also bore witness to the shrinking world, and conducted many of his projects through times of great world conflict - purposefully taking an international crew and flying the flag of the United Nations as an example of international co-operation on a man-to-man scale.  His opinions on humanity, our shared history, relationship with one another and with our planet are fascinating and clearly born of a great deal of time contemplating a vast horizon.

"The earth of our forefathers no longer exists.  The once limitless world can be circled in an hour and forty minutes.  The nations are no longer divided by impassable mountain ranges and infinite ocean gulfs.  The races are no longer independent, isolated;  they are connected and becoming crowded.  While hundreds of thousands of technicians are working on atomic fission and laser rays, our little globe is whirling at supersonic speed into a future where we are all fellow-passengers in the same great technical experiment and where we must all work together if we are not to sink with our common burden."

Thor Heyerdahl, The Ra Expeditions, 1971

One thing is for sure:  To spend 57 days on a boat made from woven reeds, crossing an ocean without any serious sailing experience in order to test a theory, is incredibly brave.  It is a testament to Heyerdahl's research, convictions and pioneering spirit that time and again he was joined by a crew of adventurers who were often prepared to drop everything at short notice to accompany him on his bold and fascinating expeditions.  

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Blue Blanquillo

Easily recognisable due to their streamlined bodies and blue coloration, with darker stripes running along their bodies and a white belly, the blue blanquillo is a truly distinctive fish.  Ordinarily found swimming alone in Indo-Pacific waters, lurking around coral reefs near the sea floor, it's remarkable to see one jumping out of the water in front of such a decidedly Cornish backdrop…

White surfboards can be stunning and certainly have their place, but I don't half love it when somebody goes for a beautiful resin tint (as is the case here) or spray job and gives their precious sled a name and a personality.  Surfboards are works of craft and art that we spend great deals of time with and money on, so it seems appropriate that when we get one with character we celebrate that.  Decorate it, name it, cherish it…and throw buckets with it.  

Nick Holden of the National Trust did and does with his Blue Blanquillo, making more than most would of a close-out under the Cornish cliffs.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The Big Blue

The oceans cover 70% of Earth's surface.  We have technology (the Hubble Space Telescope) that can form images made from light that has travelled over 10 billion trillion kilometres from the edge of our known Universe, and yet we can see less than a hundred metres under the surface of the ocean because of the way that seawater absorbs and scatters light.  We just don't know all that much about our oceans considering how influential they are to life on this planet.  We know more about space and that strikes me as being a touch ridiculous.

We exist on a watery planet, and we rely on that core element.  But the oceans are big; perhaps bigger than we can easily comprehend.  Only a few hundred years ago, nothing in terms of the duration of human evolution, we still believed that the waters of the world's oceans just poured straight off the edge of our flat planet - they were that infinite that the water just kept on coming.  And so because they are so enormous, often stretching as far as the eye can see in every direction, some people still believe that their vast ability to dilute and distribute whatever we put in them makes them cheap and easy dumping grounds.  But this abuse of our planets largest ecosystems is catching up with us, and the ability of the oceans to absorb our excess carbon dioxide and maintain the status quo is starting to tip and our actions are altering the delicate chemical balance maintained by them.     

We are all emotionally attached to the oceans - some more strongly than others but nonetheless every single human being has an unquestionable and deep affinity for these massive bodies of water far larger, greater, and mysterious than we can comprehend.  We all lose ourselves staring at them given half an opportunity.  Why?  Maybe it's because, depending on what you believe and where you place your faith, several million years ago our ancient, ancient, predecessors flapped out of them when they became too crowded and adapted to life on "Earth".  Perhaps, considering this, we were a bit wide of the mark when naming this planet of ours.  Now there's something to consider on World Oceans Day.  

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Calling All Cartophiles

I have to admit to having a bit of a thing for maps and charts; I find them utterly fascinating and can lose myself in them in just the same way that I can stare for hours at a fire or the ocean, and I don't think that I'm alone in this.  

Close your eyes, stick a pin in, and make a plan to go there.

Maps have been with us for thousands of years, allowing us to locate ourselves and place ourselves egotistically at the centre of our own personal universe, however big or small.  They allow us to travel without moving anything more than our eyes, faster than the speed of light, shrinking geography to a manageable scale and making every single one of us an explorer.  

Maps and charts transcend languages and, I would imagine, predate human speech - how else do you think homo sapiens who'd not yet figured out how to organise their grunts into primitive language were able to direct each other to food sources and co-ordinate hunts?  I'd like to think that they grabbed a stick and used it to draw directions in the dirt - the original mud map.  At some point our artistic interpretations of the landscape around us took to the skies and showed our world as the gods saw it.  We looked up to map the constellations, and we did our best to look down, taking an educated guess at what lay over the unknown horizon and beneath the sea.  Where there were blank spaces yet to be explored, cartographers used their imaginations and either made something up or drew a monster.

Both my grandfather and my great-grandfather on my mother's side worked at the Ordnance Survey. Somewhere there is a wonderful photograph of my grandfather in North Africa during WWII surveying as part of his role as a map maker for the Royal Engineers.  Perhaps my appreciation of cartography is partly down to genetic memory?

Maps take many forms and information can be presented in many different ways, the most obvious being the two flavours that world maps come in: political or geographical, one being subject to the short term nature of humanity and the lines that we draw in the sand and the other showing what is physically present but only in a narrowly defined scientific category such as vegetation or elevation.  No map can show everything and therefore no map is perfect, and in fact most of the information that we are shown is presented over a flawed template because it is so difficult to present the surface of a sphere undistorted on a flat surface.  Gerardus Mercator produced the best attempt to date in 1569 and that still forms the basis for our view of a flat world map 445 years later, but there's no getting around the fact that Greenland just isn't that big.  If a map is conveying information where location is one of the key considerations, then how it is presented is down to the cartographer.  When Harry Beck sat down at his drafting table in 1931 to produce a new map of the London Underground he took inspiration from an electronic circuit board and spaced each station more or less equally, showing how stations related to each other across the entire network rather than laying them out geographically.  It's an iconic design that has been printed more than any other map in history and is absolutely fit for purpose, but you couldn't use it to navigate yourself overland from Hammersmith to Upminster very easily.  All the same, I don't understand why I've never seen anybody waiting for the tube with Harry's famous coloured lines tattooed on their forearm.  
Other maps show such information as GDP per capita, weather patterns, military spending by country, place names sized in relation to population and how many people are currently online.  The list of what we can convey using a map goes on and on, and there are many different ways in which we can do it.

I have no idea how I manage to get any work done with this lot stuck up in front of my face above my desk.  W.Graham Arader III (the most famous, wealthy and contentious map collector/dealer in the world) probably doesn't have anything to worry about, but I am pretty fond of some of my maps and charts and the day dreams that they trigger.  Current favourites include the "Anti-Piracy Planning Chart" and "Time Zones of Antarctica" map.  

I recently picked up a second hand book called "The War Atlas", a volume of "carto-journalism" produced as part of a series illustrating inequality by a socialist publishing house.  The spread shown above shows the post Cold-War distribution of nuclear weapons (c.1982) looking down on the North Pole.  It is equal parts fascinating and terrifying.

Maps do an awful lot of things and one of the things that they do incredibly well is arouse curiosity where they are meant to sate it.  They tell us enough about a place to pique our interest but never transport us there physically.  They are the ultimate cause of itchy feet, and for that I love them.

My oldest friend gave me this beautiful three dimensional relief nautical chart for my birthday last year.  He said that he'd tried to find one for somewhere that I'd visited on a surf trip but then, as my birthday drew near, he panicked and "just bought the coolest looking one that they had" and in doing so inadvertently added another destination to my "must visit" list.

Judith Schalansky's Atlas of Remote Islands is one of those books that I dearly wished I had written.  I think that I would probably have written a slightly different subtitle if I had been the author though:  
"Fifty Islands I have not visited but intend to".

 The stuff that dreams are made of/dual purpose bedside lighting and inspiration.

 If you want to see an incredible collection of maps then check out "40 maps that will help you make sense of the world" over on Twisted Sifter.  They are incredible and many of them are very thought provoking.  

And, if you're looking for some bedtime reading in old-fashioned paper and ink form then "On The Map" by Simon Garfield will tell you everything you ever thought you wanted to know and then some about cartography in it's many guises.  That, and an Atlas.