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Thinking Pongo Thoughts

pongo thoughts

This is Pongo. He’s known as An Ugly in pottery terms. I named him Pongo when I was a child and for much of my life, he was a doorstop. He went with us to a succession of houses and one of the signs of home for me was Pongo by the front door. When my parents died, I knew I had to have Pongo come live with me. He is honourably retired from his doorkeeping duties in deference to his age and sits on my windowsill, his droopy eyelids gazing benignly at me. The green of his bow is a little faded but that makes not a jot of difference to me. Pongo is home. He endures.
Photo © Rachel Cowan


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I am an enormous fan of the corvid family of birds.  They are highly intelligent and extremely clever. They do use that intelligence to bully and steal on occasion, but then so does homo sapiens.

I once knew a family of magpies who successfully raised a couple of young ones a year. Their dramatic looks reminded me of a gentleman’s evening tailcoat with electric blue silk lining and their machine-gun staccato cries like the braying laugh of the gentleman’s wife.

Crows are universally confident – it takes a lot to frighten them. Crow-scaring devices provoke an initial flurry of alarm, but canny corvids quickly work out what is a real threat and which a ruse.

One day this crow was patient enough to pose for me. Initially perched in a tree overlooking a riverside path, he hopped obligingly closer and struck a pose in nobile profile, that keen eye always keeping me in sight. People refer to this type of crow as little undertakers because of their all-black feathered suits.  If that’s so, then they are a very superior type of undertaker, for their sleek glossy feathers are many wonderful tones of black.

Their ghoulish reputation as scavengers of the dead is probably exaggerated, but it does give us that marvellous Scots song, ‘The Twa Corbies’:

As I was walking all alane,

I heard twa corbies making a mane;

The tane unto the t’other say,

‘Where sall we gang and dine to-day?’
‘In behint yon auld fail dyke,

I wot there lies a new slain knight;

And naebody kens that he lies there,

But his hawk, his hound, and lady fair.
‘His hound is to the hunting gane,

His hawk to fetch the wild-fowl hame,

His lady’s ta’en another mate,

So we may mak our dinner sweet.
‘Ye’ll sit on his white hause-bane,

And I’ll pike out his bonny blue een;

Wi ae lock o his gowden hair,

We’ll theek our nest when it grows bare.
‘Mony a one for him makes mane,

But nane sall ken where he is gane;

Oer his white banes, when they we bare,

The wind sall blaw for evermair.

Photo © Rachel Cowan


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what price beauty mono

I was walking past the Shelter shop in Raeburn Place when something caught my eye. In the middle of the window display was a vintage mannequin bust. She was naked but for a string of pearls with a price tag hanging from them. Her head was bald, her maquillage only slightly faded. But the most striking thing about her was her beauty and how lifelike she was. I looked at her from every angle I could, pressing my nose against the window (never be self-conscious about these things if you’re serious about photography!). Eventually I found an angle that would give scarcely any reflection. The sunlight fell on her slightly upturned face and threw the rest of the display into shadow.

I took only a couple of shots and this was one of them. In colour, she was beautiful but unexceptional. But in black and white, the starkness of her beauty shone out. Her eyes seemed beseeching, her cheekbones as sharp as a whetting knife.

Out of all my photos, this is probably my absolute favourite. I never gave the mannequin a name, although I know that her owner does. I’ve since seen her dressed in many different outfits, but never to me did she look more beautiful than the day she was clad only in pearls at a price.

Martine peeking

Martine was a French lady who came to visit friends in Edinburgh for a few weeks each summer. My French is terrible these days and she didn’t have an extensive grasp of the English language, but we nodded amiably to each other – Ca va? ~ Ca va bien, merci. She had a wonderfully mobile face and I knew I wanted to capture some of her facial expressions.

In the small back room of the Gramophone Emporium in St Stephen’s Street, there was a hubbub of conversation which Martine was struggling to follow. Suddenly, someone asked her a question. As she leaned forward to listen, I took this picture. The light in the room was very bad, not to mention being so crowded, my elbows were welded to my sides as I lifted the camera and I wasn’t sure I had caught the moment.

When I showed her this photo later, she was amused – C’est moi! Oh! – and didn’t mind a bit.

My grateful thanks to the manager of the Shelter shop for his inspirational mannequin.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan


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Trains & Flowers

going off the rails 600

I had been wandering through Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens, but had grown bored with shots of pretty trees and benches. An American tourist once asked why Edinburgh Castle was built above the railway: they found it hard to grasp the concept of an ancient castle built on an extinct volcano.

I headed over to the bridge that separates the Gardens from the slopes of the Castle. I was initially disappointed to find that not only were the sides of the bridge were too high to effectively shoot over, but the railway authorities had filled in the mesh with heavy duty plastic.

I stood there for about fifteen minutes watching trains come from nearby Waverley Station, bobbing up and down like a lunatic as I tried to find a vantage point I could shoot from. Then I concluded that it might be less frustrating to work with the prevailing conditions. So I hunkered down a bit to the level of the plastic sheeting, focussed as best I could and waited for another train. As the train approached, I fired off a few shots. I knew there would be blur, but hoped it might be effective blur. What I got was what snappers often call the happy accident. The effect of the plastic, plus my shaky hands, produced this impressionistic, even romantic, picture of a very ordinary modern commuter train.

discarded 600 small

I was walking home through St Stephen’s Place, the site of the old fruit market in Stockbridge. And there, just beside the arch, were these torn-up discarded flowers. Vividly red against the grey of the paving stones. I knew that my newly acquired Bronica was loaded with Velvia film and that this was the perfect subject for it. Velvia has always been a favourite with photographers who want intense, deep colour. I gambled that the flowers wouldn’t be cleared away in the time it was going to take me to fetch my camera and my luck held.

Was there a story behind them? I imagined a quarrel between lovers, perhaps a longstanding grievance about not spending enough time together. The man, as men do, bought flowers and presented them to show his devotion. The woman, as women do, talked of empty gestures and was that the best he could do. She tore the flowers to pieces in front of him and flung them on the pavement. He retreated, hurt, to the pub.

While I took a few shots of the torn blooms, several passers-by asked me what I was doing. Part of the curiosity was about the camera, for old medium-format cameras bear no resemblance to the pocketsize digital cameras we’re now so accustomed to. Apart from anything else, the picture is back to front in the viewfinder. But it turned out that people were also curious about the flowers and why they were there.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan


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Hands & Feet

bows with attitude small

I had a young friend who was a talented artist with a gallery in St Stephen Street. She liked to dress flamboyantly and had the striking good looks to carry it off with ease. The day this picture was taken, she was dressed down in casual top and jeans. But, being her, the look didn’t stop there. She twirled in front of me, pointed downwards and clicked her heels. There were sequinned, pillarbox red shoes complete with bows. Dorothy shoes with a twist! How could I resist? Afterwards, I bleached out most of the colour except the bottom of the denims and those red shoes. She’s since become the mother of a wee boy, but she’s still a working artist whose verve and zest for life is infectious and heartwarming.

woodturner small

There’s an annual festival which takes place in Inverleith Park called Treefest. It celebrates all aspects of wood, so there are demonstrations of woodturning and logging as well as marquees full of the most beautiful things ever to emerge from wood or paper. It was a hot summer’s day when this was taken and the woodturner was busy at his lathe. The fact that the rest of him was in deep shade drew me to those hands and arms – cords of sinews and muscle and brown, knobbly hands.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan


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The Quack – Molly Mallard Speaks

Mrs Molly Mallard small

“Is it OK to take your picture?”

“Why yes dear, that’s fine.”

“Your mate seems a little disturbed by my interviewing you – he’s got his head stuck under his feathers.”

“Oh don’t mind him. I said to him not half an hour ago, I said ‘Maurice, it’s very nice being up high on this wall, but we’re only going to draw attention to ourselves.’ I mean, it’s not exactly natural is it? Ducks on walls?”

“Actually, retro plaster ducks are very – no, never mind – you’re right, it’s not very – usual.”

“I said ‘On the river, Maurice – that’s where we belong – high living isn’t for the likes of us’ but he’s got it into his head that he has to make a – what does he call it – a statement – I ask you. Anyway, here we are on this blessed wall and I don’t mind telling you, I’m starting to get a little dizzy.”

“You do look great up there though. Not many ducks have your natural composure.”

“Thank you dear. [Ruffles feathers proudly] Well, if we’re here for everyone to see, the least we can do is smile is what I say.”

“I do appreciate it.”

“Not at all dear – now would you like my other side? Maurice always says it’s my best.”

“I think I’ve got all I need now, thanks.”

Photo © Rachel Cowan

Photos, Stories

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The bucketmen and the cafe

binman tech small

I was taking a cut-through from St Stephen Street and blocking my view (it was stopped at traffic lights) was this rubbish lorry. We used to call them the bucketmen and I’m not sure when buckets became bins. Perhaps around the same time that the word lorry was replaced with the Americanised truck?

It’s not what one would call a beautiful view, but just look at the design that’s gone into it. The colour scheme on the buttons, the shapes and spacing – so much detail on what is, after all, a completely utilitarian vehicle. I got just one shot before the lights changed and the truck moved off.

glace noir small

It was one of those blustery, chilly days and I was at the front at Silverknowes. I went into the little cafe which is one of the most uninspiring places I know to have a cup of coffee. Approaching the counter, I heard two voices yelling, a man and a woman. The argument was conducted in Russian and the man was definitely getting the worst of it. My genteel cough to draw attention to myself went unheard, and eventually I joined in the yelling HELLO CAN I HAVE A COFFEE PLEASE?

Hugging my insipid coffee (nuked in the microwave) I gazed out at the bleak beach, the tide a mere dribble. The mobile ice cream ad seemed completely incongruous – a gloriously grim landscape. Once I’d thawed out, I took some pictures. As I was doing this, the woman from the cafe came past me and sniffed contemptuously.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan


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Down an alley, through a gate, in the bowels of a tenement block, a car park. Above it a garden shed painted white: clotheslines and bars on windows. But now it’s night. No sheets flapping in the wind. Nobody pottering in the shed with next year’s dahlias. The darkness is navy blue. And it’s quiet. Very quiet.The car, centred in a pool of light at the bottom of the ramp, is ready. Any moment those headlamps could snap on, the engine roar into life. It’s waiting, that’s all, just waiting. For now.

the curves

I was roaming around the Colonies and parked there was this car. Don’t ask me what make it was, I’m a complete duffer on cars. I can only tell you it was of that era (the 1950s perhaps?) that is now known as a classic car. Big and handsome and glossily virile it was. But then I saw the front lights and those sinuous curves – a sexily feminine touch on a very masculine car.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan


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Steam & Dark

I confess – this is one of my favourite photos. My fingers froze to the bone while I tried to get exactly what I wanted from what I saw but it was worth it in the end. I was walking home down the hill on a cold night and ahead of me was the cheese shop. The interior, normally quite glacial, must have been sluiced with hot water not long before I arrived, causing a lot of steam.

The colours were worthy of Caravaggio and the way the lighting interacted with the steam was pure theatre. There’s no blur or smudge applied to this picture – this is as was. Never have strings of saucissons looked so good.

This cafe remained dark and silent for many weeks after closing. One evening, I came by and saw these chairs stacked in the window.

Reflections of other buildings and lights across the street made for an interesting added dimension. It was like a movie stage for a film noir – I half expected a homburg-wearing gumshoe, wreathed in cigarette smoke, to emerge from the gloom.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan


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the shadows

Night brings different challenges for the photographer but also many delights. Stockbridge is on the edge of the New Town and many of its cobbled streets have lovely wrought iron street lanterns. Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about Leerie the Lamplighter, who patrolled the streets lighting these gas lamps, now electrified.

This picture was taken in the winter months in a mews not far from me. The clock tower of St Stephens, only its illuminated face floating above the street, shows the time as ten past eight. A car is parked to the right, tucked into the wall. Doors hung with creeping ivy are deep in the gloom. A Victorian lamp attached to the upper floor of a mews house, where the windows are lit, casts a pool of light on the cobbles.

I’m chasing the moon, trying to include it in the picture – a perfect sphere hanging alongside the clock face of the tower – but it seems I can get either clock or moon in my viewfinder, but not both. Frustrated, I think about giving up. Then quite suddenly (I start a little) a figure steps from the shadows and begins to walk towards me. I can’t make out any details of his appearance and he hasn’t yet seen me. I click the shutter a few times.

The colours of the resulting picture were a mix of greys, browns and blacks – conversion to black and white was an obvious choice.

The man who walked out of the shadows that night is a local – I see him on the street almost daily. He has no idea that he was the crucial element that lifted the photo out the ordinary.

There’s a cut-through from St Stephen Street to Hamilton Place. It starts at the Stockbridge Market arch, goes past the old fruit stores, a row of tenements with pretty gardens and then into this slightly grim underpass area. The authorities and the tag artists wage a constant graffiti war on those blinding white walls.

Of course, it’s a photographer’s dream. That swelling wall to the left is actually the stairwell of the flats above. And at some point, concrete slabs have replaced half of the original cobbles. There’s two exits you can take here – the left is cobbled and the right slabbed. Bright daylight does lovely things in this space and at night, the wall lamps make it positively Hitchcockian.

As I snapped away, happy as Larry, I knew that what I really needed was a person. As a comma to all that blankness. But it had to be the right person. Some chattering teens were the first ones I rejected, then a scowly man with a chocolate labrador (how on earth can any man remain scowly with such an idiotic but adorable dog?). Then out the corner of my eye, I saw this lady. Mercy of mercies, she was a slow walker. Click – right there.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan