A few years ago I took a different set of portraits with a couple of friends. Lorna brought some costumes with her from her own collection of vintage clothes and Rachel posed in outfits from the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. We used a space in another friend's house in Portobello - a lovely old house that was built in the nineteenth century so we could have been creating a fictional former inhabitant through the ages. In the course of the afternoon we created a great set of portraits of Rachel.
As well as the fun of dressing up Rachel ended up with a stylish set of portraits - the sort of picture you can put up on the wall that visitors look at and ask, 'Is that you?'. While it might be a while before we can borrow costumes and use a personal stylist and MUA (Make Up Artist) because of COVID-19 restrictions if you can source your own costume and do your own styling we could take a similar series of portraits either indoors or outdoors. Check out my location portraits page.
At this time of year there is a lot of birdlife to be seen, just offshore from Portobello Beach, even when the beach is busy with people. But what is there to see? Closest to hand, and frequently taking a chance to steal some unattended food are the gulls - the relatively dainty Black Headed Gulls and the larger Herring Gulls and Lesser Black Backed Gulls are the commonest but I'll save them for another article as they are to be seen all year round at the beach. Instead I'll concentrate on the summer visitors to the beach, terns and gannets, who can all be seen diving into the water looking for food.
Terns are often heard before you see them - their shrill calls seem to cut through the general noise of the beach more effectively than the cries of gulls, but maybe it's just that gulls are more familiar. They are usually seen flying past the beach - unlike the gulls they rarely fly up over the sand, although they do sometimes rest on the wooden groynes or the circular marker posts. In flight terns are more graceful than gulls, with more angular wings and long tails. The are also known as Sea Swallows which is a good description. Most of the terns at Portobello are Common Terns which have red bills with a dark tip and long tail streamers. There is a very similar Arctic Tern which has a plain red beak and longer tail feathers but the two species are very similar and there are some more detailed guides on telling the difference. Easier to identify are Sandwich Terns, which are a little bigger than the other two, have shorter forked tails and dark bills with a yellow tip. If you are lucky a tern will dive into the water and catch a fish quite close to the shore - great to watch bit tricky to photograph!
Gannets tend to fly by a bit further out than the terns, but because they are much bigger birds you can still see them from the beach, even without binoculars. They are noticeably white in appearance compared to gulls, especially when the sun is shining. If they do come in close they are quite striking birds with their black wing tips and yellow heads but they are most spectacular when they dive in for fish, seeming to pause in midair and then plunging into the sea from a considerable height. As they approach the water they pull in their wings until they are like a black and white rocket as they enter the water. Having a camera to freeze the action shows the last minute adjustments they can make just before they hit the sea. Gannets breed on the Bass Rock - in fact it's where they got their latin name Morus bassanus. The colony there is the largest in the world with 75,000 pairs in 2014. There is a bit of a tale about the scientific name. When I was growing up, Gannets were referred to as Sula bassanus in all the bird books, part of the same genus as the Boobies who live in the Tropics. Sula came from the Old Norse name for Gannet and yet for some reason the species Sula sula was the Red Footed Booby and not the Northern Gannet. When DNA studies recently separated out the Gannets and the Boobies for some reason it was the Gannets that got a different name in 2016 - Morus (from the latin for 'stupid'). Somehow Gannets have become Boobies and Boobies have become Gannets. And the Snark was a Boojum all along.
Sorting through my photography archive recently I rediscovered my small collection of post box images. I was 'collecting' them a number of years ago and although that early enthusiasm has waned, I still take the odd one these days. I think I need to restart a more systematic collection before they start to disappear. And unlike red phone boxes I can't see any useful repurposing of them that will keep them on our streets when they are no longer used for posting letters.
So, for the first in this short series about photography, I am going to begin with the tiny circle that first made photography possible, without even needing a camera. Long before the first cameras were made in the nineteenth century people had been aware of the phenomenon of the camera obscura - from the Latin for 'dark chamber'. Light passing through a tiny hole into a dark space will project an upside-down and reversed image of the scene outside onto the surface opposite the hole. This is the basis of pinhole cameras, and Edinburgh's Camera Obscura (well worth a visit).
Both the Edinburgh and Bristol Camera Obscuras make use of mirrors and lenses to focus the light down onto the table top, as well as flip it back to being the right way up. The key problem for all pinhole cameras is that the clarity of the image increases as the size of the hole gets smaller but as the hole gets smaller less and less light gets through, making it harder to see the image. That is why pinhole cameras using film often require long exposures to produce an image. And eventually, when the pinhole gets too small, the effects of diffraction, mean that the image gets blurrier again. So lenses are used to focus the light while still letting enough of it through. Which is how our eyes work - light coming in through the pupil is focused through the lens onto the retina at the back of the eye. The retina is covered with photoreceptors - rods and cones, better at reacting to low and bright light respectively - which send messages to the brain for processing, much like a camera. With a film camera, the film is like the retina and then the combination of the dark room chemicals and the decisions made by the photographer during the development process act like the brain to create the image. In a digital camera some of the image processing can be done in the camera before passing on the image file for potential further processing by other applications either on the same device or another computer. But more of that another time.
You can make a pinhole camera out of just about any 'container' as long as you can make it lightproof and find a way to make a small hole in the side to let the light in. Back in college most of my class used shoe boxes or chocolate tins as they were a good size to fit in a reasonably sized piece of photographic light-sensitive paper. There are lots of online guides available that talk through the process - like this one. If you have used photographic paper you will need to develop it but you don't need to use special chemicals, as camera-maker extraordinaire Brendan Barry explains in one of his excellent videos. You can also create a digital pinhole, using a simple lens cap (as described here). The image below was created using a lens cap pinhole on my DSLR just now. It might not be the best of images but it is recognisably the view from our window.
Sometime my work as a Community Photographer leads me into community activism. I was involved in the campaign for the successful community buy out of Bellfield, documenting the campaign and providing publicity images to help the cause. Last year (2019) Edinburgh Council announced that Portobello Town Hall was to close. Following on from that, community consultations and meetings led to the formation of an informal, unconstituted, group currently called 'Portobello Central' The group includes representatives from both The Wash House and Action Porty (which runs Bellfield) and as well as people involved in various aspects of community, council or commercial life in Edinburgh.
Action Porty is supporting Portobello Central with some services e.g. banking; it considers Portobello Central to be a working sub-group of Action Porty. This is on the clear proviso that the work of Action Porty is not impaired in any way by the connection to Portobello Central. It does not follow that Action Porty would take on the management of the Town Hall, however, there is recognition that there is scope for considering the management of community spaces in Portobello in a joined-up fashion.
A properly constituted and accountable body will have to be established if the Council offers to lease on the basis of a Portobello Central proposal.
The City of Edinburgh Council put out an open call for expressions of interest and asked that any submissions...
"..should provide information on your proposal for the property and in particular: 1. The use to which it may be put together with provision for community or other public use.
2. Any refurbishment and upgrading works together and how these are likely to be funded.”
Portobello Central now wants to have 300 conversations in 30 days from mid-June to mid-July. These are to gather structured feedback about possible uses for the space and costed works to be carried out to make the building ready for opening. These conversations will inform the group's offer to the council as they develop a model to fund these works and finance the running of the building on a leased basis.
Portobello Central want it to be Portobello's offer, based firmly in the community, and so are encouraging people to participate. Obviously in these COVID-19 days it isn't just a case of inviting everyone to a public meeting. so meeting will take place online via Zoom or via online surveys or phone conversations. All the details are on the Portobello Central website.
Currently the Group hopes to have a proposal ready in mid-August 2020.
Images from pre-COVID days when Portobello Town Hall could be used for public meetings without social distancing. Above: political hustings in 2015. Below: Action Porty event organised to canvass community opinions about the Westbank Powerleague site.
In the midst of the pandemic and the global Black Lives Matter campaign there was a small scale, locally organised event on Portobello Beach. People came together to the beach but households kept their distance and most people wore masks. Everyone took a knee at the same time and after a moving silent protest they all quietly dispersed again. As a photographer I was there taking pictures of the event but as a person I was also there to take part, to join the silent protest, to take a knee with the rest in quiet contemplation.
A selection of pictures from the year, with a particular emphasis on the Beach busk and the Art Walk, when I took a LOT of pictures! Just some of the many varied activities that were going on in our little bit of Edinburgh that give a flavour of the very real sense of community that exists here. Something that was recognised by the Academy of Urbanism that awarded Portobello their Great Neighbourhood Award 2020 at the 2020 Urbanism Awards in November 2019.
A fabulous fortieth birthday party at the Ghillie Dhu in central Edinburgh. An international gathering with a very Scottish flavour!
International FIRST conference at EICC - six days of lectures and networking with delegates from all over the world.
I'm Jon Davey, a freelance community photographer based in Portobello, Edinburgh's seaside suburb