Tag Archives | photo

Corvid

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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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Faces

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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

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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.


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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

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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.


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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

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“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

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The bucketmen and the cafe

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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.

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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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After The Show

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Street theatre’s a hard gig, take it from me. The excited screams of children, photographers snapping away from every angle and traffic noise that can overwhelm the sound system. And the weather’s always a worry – will the gear stand up to a sudden gust of wind or downpour of rain?

Thank goodness the audience doesn’t realise all this. Of course, when you’re on, all of that vanishes. The body’s aches and pains, the worries of everyday life simply cease to exist. But now — after — the energy that you needed for the show slowly uncoils.

That aching shoulder makes presence known again and your costume feels itchy and heavy. Your make up runs streaky with sweat. And tired. God, you hadn’t realised how tired you were. That first ciggie feels blissful, even though you know it’s bad for you. You can finally let your face sink into repose. You don’t want to talk to anyone yet, just grab a moment for yourself to recover from all that intensity. Relief and resignation are washing over you. It’s done, over, nothing you can do about it now. Tomorrow’s another show, another day, another place. The doubts will come later: was it ok, was I ok? How was the audience, will we be asked back next year?

Your stomach starts to rumble. The set-up tonight took longer than expected, so you missed dinner. Now you’re longing for fast, greasy food. You could murder a long, cool beer too.

Then a couple of hours spent laughing and joking with your fellow performers, congratulating each other on your collective brilliance. Trying your best as always to ignore the producer who’s hell-bent on giving you notes on what “wasn’t quite as good as usual” in today’s show.

But for now, it’s just the moment. The moment that is after.

Photo © Rachel Cowan

Stories

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Aunt Effie’s Wedding

Aunt Effie’s wedding photo. The guests, their ages ranging from age 73 to 2 months, are posing dutifully for the photographer on a fine June day in Hamilton, Lanarkshire. Close family members of the bride and groom are packed together on benches in the front row and the rest of the guests are ranged behind, groom’s folk to the photographer’s left, bride’s to his right. A solemn looking young minister stands directly behind the happy couple. There’s almost a complete set of three generations of Bensons present, although the second wife of the bride’s grandfather is not in the photo. There are at least four individuals named Robert Benson. And the bride’s sister, Retta, married five years before, has a two month old baby on her knee – my mother. The men, wearing heather in their buttonholes, are almost all employed in the coal mines, excepting my grandfather Somerville, who is a butcher. Aunt Effie, by marrying Tom Wilson, is marrying up. He is at the time of his marriage a bank clerk and will later rise to the position of bank manager. Five of the men, including the groom, sport stiffened wing collars and seven of the women have furs draped around their necks, notwithstanding the season.

Family History

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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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Waverley & Nothing For Sale

I was out around Princes Street with my Ilford Sporti, a camera from the 1950s. The Sporti was at the cheap end of medium format back then (using 120 roll film). Its controls are basic and this particular camera had a bit of a light leak, which gave the resulting pictures an ethereal edge. It gives 12 square pictures from each roll – and in this case, was loaded with Tri-X, my favourite b&w film.

As I turned onto Waverley Bridge, it seemed to me that the many layers of Edinburgh were laid out in front of me. To my left, a hideous 1970s shopping mall which has never really flourished – Edinburgh Council isn’t famed for the wisdom of its planning decisions. A taxi rank, not over-busy on a chilly, out-of-season January day. Tour buses parked up in a line more in hope than expectation of a crowd of tourists.

Then, down a steep ramp, the Victorian grandeur of Waverley Station. Rising steeply above the valley floor are the towering tenements of the Old Town (high-rise architecture centuries before the term was invented). And above all of them, the spire of the High Kirk of St Giles on the Royal Mile.

There is a truly extraordinary shop in St Stephen Street. I call it the Shop where Nothing is for Sale, because when I was new to the area, I went in and asked how much several items were. The reply to all my questions was It’s not for sale. I’ve since discovered that my experience is by no means unique.

The range of stock defies description. There are old patchwork quilts hanging near the top of the window, strings of beads and brooches draped over jewellery boxes, tiny china animals, miniature vintage toys, battered Dinky vans, and sets of silvered hair brushes to name just a few. The interior is darkly Dickensian and the whole shop is lit by just a few unadorned and feeble lightbulbs.

The shop is owned by a mother and son. The mother, very aged, often sits outside the door on an old bentwood chair, watching the world pass by. The son spends most of his days in one of the local hostelries.

I took this picture on a winter night, when darkness descends before the shops are ready to close. It was a little misty and the light in the window seemed to shine more brightly than usual.

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan

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Just So

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There’s a shop on Howe Street, tucked into a basement, which rejoices in the name of Lonsdale & Dutch. I believe that they are technically called tinsmiths, but I think of it as the lantern shop. For in the window are all kinds of outdoor lanterns and their fittings such are common in Edinburgh’s New Town. Figures can be glimpsed, bent over lathes, through a blue mist of dust and metal particles in the workshop. I’ve never had the nerve to ask if I could photograph inside the workshop, but I long to do so.

The window display (if display’s the right word) rarely changes – one rickety lantern replacing another and a fresh scattering of nuts and bolts. And while it’s fascinating by day, it’s at night that it really comes alive to evoke the spirit of an older Edinburgh. I’ve spent what feels like hours aiming my camera at the lit window on cold winter nights, only giving up when my hands were too frozen to continue. This picture is one of the results.


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Once upon a time, I swore I’d never take what I call chocolate box pictures. But, you know, never is such a long time and pretty pictures are, whether we like it or not, all around us. And here’s an example.

You’d swear this is a carefully constructed composition for Country Living magazine. (Incidentally, that magazine is one of my guilty pleasures – it’s as good as eating an entire box of chocolates and almost as good as sex – well, as good as bad sex, if you see what I mean). The beautiful latticed ironwork of the table and chair, a birdbox placed just so, a shabby chic enamel watering can and planters and a garden fence to set it all off. A stylist would be in heaven – why all it needs is a faded Cath Kidston apron and a child with tousled curls named Imogen!

But it isn’t. I swear. On my mother’s life. OK Mother isn’t with us any more, but if she were, she’d have said now this is lovely – I don’t know why you can’t take nice pictures like this all the time, instead of that weird stuff. Yes Mum.

The location, by the way, was one of the handkerchief-size gardens of the Stockbridge Colonies – and yes, shabby chic is big down there, let me tell you…

All Photographs © Rachel Cowan

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