Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Chasing Smoke - 12

The Skyline. The skyline? Isn't that a bit obvious? Well, yes and no. It is New York's 'face' after all and a fitting place to conclude this brief series. The skyline, like the city itself, is not one thing. With as many facets as there are angles to view it, and all of them wondrous and brutal. Whether you see it on foot from ground level, rising above the foliage of Central Park or from the observation deck of the Empire State, from the Staten Island Ferry or driving in from one of the surrounding airports, the outlines of New York's wonderful architecture against the sky, land or water, is a human marvel, a statement of what is possible.

In the better part of a decade spent there, I travelled to and from the city several times a week, and not once in all those hundreds of journeys did I ever see the skyline and not sigh with the satisfaction of profound happiness. My first rented apartment was on Remsen Street in Brooklyn Heights and I looked out over downtown Manhattan from the living-room window. I ran every morning along the promenade and each time, the same feeling of awe and potential and belonging, crashed over me. However, my favorite view was inevitably the most frequent. Living on the Upper West Side I would most often return via the Tri-boro bridge and there was always that point where the road crested, sweeping right and there it was; by no means the best aspect on the city compared to the classic views approaching from Red hook or the Long Island Expressway, but it was my welcome home.

For me, the enduring quality of this landscape is that it doesn't matter how brief a glimpse I get through trees or buildings or parting clouds, approaching or leaving, it still has the same effect. 

Day 6 - Leaving the city for the airport, I get one last fleeting view through the cables and bridges of the LIRR track as the train speeds to Jamaica, Queens.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Chasing Smoke - 11

The City that never sleeps.... Even when the residents do. One of the things that has endured is the sense of round-the-clock endeavor. No mater what time it is or where you are in New York, you are never more a than a few meters away from someone working.

Day 6 - 3 am in a pizza restaurant off Christopher Street, one of the customers slumps on the table next to a slice of pizza. Tiredness overcame hunger.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Chasing Smoke - 10

The cab home. "Shall we walk.... or do we have time to take a cab?" was another of those great New York truisms offered as wisdom to help my transition from tourist to resident. But late at night there is something at once decadent and comforting about whistling through the city. 

Day 5 - Heading south, Fifth avenue stretching relentlessly green in front of us as we ate the blocks from east mid-town to the village in the blink of an eye.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

Chasing Smoke - 9

The Bronx. Maybe this is the borough that represents the closest thing I have found so far to that elusive feeling of New York. A feeling, an atmosphere that in truth, had nearly vanished from most of Manhattan even by the time I arrived in 1991 and was certainly a rare and precious commodity less than a decade later when I departed. I still can't describe adequately what it is, but you know it when you see it, and this felt very close. The latin music blaring out from an open window above a bodega, 'walk-up' buildings, a heady mix of community spirit, grit and getting through the hard life with a smile, snatching joy where you can find it.

Day 4 - East 151th Street and Courtland Avenue. telephone and power cables adorned with 'sneakers' outside the Bronx Documentary Centre where an exhibition of my late friend, Tim Hetherington's last photographs was opening. (More on that subject soon)

Chasing Smoke - 8

Again, the light. My father always used to say that wherever there's a traffic jam, you'll find a policeman trying to direct the cars. Not Here! A tricky junction, nearby street closures, one woman with a will of iron making it all run like butter in the sun.

Day 4 - West 14th at 9th Ave. The low sun of the evening bouncing in every direction.

Chasing Smoke - 7

To be young in NY. It is often said, though I don't know who first coined the phrase, that New York is only for "The very rich, the very poor and the very young." It's not true of course but I was quoted this by a long-time resident when I first arrived. He asserted that when I fell between these three groups I should leave.

Day 4 - A young couple kissing on the uptown 3 train, just after 72nd street.

Chasing Smoke - 6

Constant change. As the old joke goes, "New York is an amazing city.... its going to be FANTASTIC when it's finished!" Of course, it will never be finished, constant tearing-up, rebuilding and alteration is a big part of its allure.

Day 4 - A sidewalk on on Gansvoort Street, cobbles, tarmac, cement, concrete, hardboard, duct-tape, utilty line markings. History displayed like the rings of a tree.

Chasing Smoke - 5

The Light. A sunny autumn morning in New York leaves you with the sense that you could achieve anything. The colours, the reflections, the limitless possibilities.

Day 4 - A yellow cab barrels along Washington Street under the southern end of the High Line, reflected in the window of a florist. 

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Chasing Smoke - 4

Flags. The very first thing I really learned about America is how the "Stars and Stripes" is so much more than a symbol in the national psyche. It is something woven into the very fabric of being American. I have never seen more or bigger flags anywhere in the world than in the US.

Day 3 - A construction site on 14th Street. Nobody working at this time of night but the flag is still lit up, fluttering in the swirling wind.

Chasing Smoke - 3

Coffee. Before the chains of interchangeable multinational beverage shops became ubiquitous in New York, there used to be little places that served what they described as coffee. Not 'latte' or 'cappuccino' or 'grande soya de-caff mocha' but its straightforward, unadorned cousin. Your choices were, black or white, sugar or not. Sometimes it was great, sometimes it was battery acid but it was honest either way.

Day 3 - A good cup of coffee at Cafe Gitane on Jane Street. At some point in the drinking you get a little skyline appearing from the caffein 'Hudson'. There are still lots of places if you look a bit.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Chasing Smoke - 2

Baseball caps. For me, a Yankees cap always looks vaguely fraudulent anywhere outside of New York...
Irrespective of how committed a fan the wearer might be.

Day 2 - My friends' son, staring curiously into the lens. Barely at pre-school and already a Yankees fan. Pinstripe in the genes.

Chasing Smoke - 1

In August I travelled to America for the first time in over a decade. I found New York in particular to have changed a great deal. Of course it's absurd to expect places to remain when we ourselves change constantly. So, on this visit I decided to photograph anything that evoked some kind of memory for me - whether real or imagined.

Day 1 - Croton on Hudson - Even though I've never been here before I found this scene instantly redolent of a certain aesthetic you see north of the city's suburbs and south of what could righteously be considered 'Upstate'.

Thursday, 20 October 2011


A few weeks ago, during what was an almost freakishly warm late September, I had the opportunity to go out on assignment foraging for wild foods with one of the most knowledgeable people in the country, Miles Irving. 

Miles has not only written one of the best books on the subject but also has a company that supplies foraged foods to top restaurants around the country and there was a wonderfully autumnal mist hanging low over the fields as I drove into the village in Kent where he bases his operations. 

Foraging has undergone something of a popularity boost in recent years with many people paying to go on courses aimed at learning to identify and sustainably gather the native plants and fungi that would once have been an essential part of the ordinary diet but have now fallen out of circulation.

On the relatively short walk along the nearby river Miles showed us some of the everyday plants that are easy and safe to identify. He also showed us the frightening similarity between some of the most deadly plants and their edible cousins along with a warning that they represent very advanced foraging knowledge, not to be attempted by anyone who has even the slightest doubt. 

The most shocking anecdote he told was of one of his course attendees who had grown up an orphan after her parents had both cooked and eaten what they described as cow-parsley soup and which turned out to be the inordinately poisonous hemlock.

He picked stem from the nearby undergrowth and showed us some of the identifying marks and characteristics and then, rather soberingly, showed us how little it would take to kill a person. It was a tiny amount, barely bigger than a coin and the leaf itself looked to the untrained eye exactly like the herb chervil.

As we walked further along the riverbank Miles picked mallow, sorrel, yarrow and rose hips amongst others, all of which we tasted and learned a little of their potential uses in cooking or traditional medicine.

The most surprising was the seeds of giant hogweed which not only looked amazing, backlit in the morning rays, but also tasted extraordinary - buttery, nutty, slightly citrus and herby.

On our return to the house we went into the preparation room. It was a hive of activity as three people worked relentlessly to fulfill orders placed by top restaurants. Boxes labeled with the name of the establishment were being checked against lists and pristine bags of various herbs and fungi were placed into them. All with a low-key semi-military efficiency.

Added to which, Miles himself was preparing sample bags to show to the chef team at Heston Blumethal's Dinner restaurant in the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, Knightsbridge, hoping to persuade them about these unusual and under-used flavours.

It is extremely important to stress at this point that no one should attempt to forage for food unless they have a good knowledge of what they are picking. Miles offers courses and has an excellent book on the subject but he urged caution even for those who were experienced.

"You can eat anything once, " he drily observed. "Just because it tastes ok doesn't mean it won't do you a lot of harm or even kill you."

"Even if you are experienced, there are certain families of plants that you should be extremely wary about."

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Madam President

Three days ago (7th October) it was announced that this year's Nobel Peace prize was to be shared by three remarkable women , Leymah Gbowee, Tawakkul Karman and Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

Back in February 2006, I had the priveledge of meeting and photographing President Sirleaf while I was in Monrovia, covering the rehabilitation of child soldiers in Liberia for the Sunday Times (London).

As part of our UN organised visit we had been invited to a attend a presidential ceremony where new dignitaries would be sworn-in. It was still only a month or so after her inauguration and there was a curious atmosphere. A mix of perhaps understandable tension over her security, and elation in the crowd who clearly sensed this historical opportunity to break the cycle of violence that had gripped Liberia so often in their recent past. 

When proceedings were ready to begin, a hush descended over the assembly and the president herself entered the room, flanked by security at a respectful distance and followed by a throng of local photographers who mobbed her, shutters chattering as she walked the length of the smiling room.

Seated on a sofa embroidered with the national emblem and with an imposing and vigilant bodyguard stood immediately behind her, she cut a calm but formidable figure.

One of the most beguiling aspects of being a photographer is the opportunity to see behind the scenes of so many people's lives. Legendary female journalist and longtime comrade in arms 'Charlie Alpha' had managed to arrange an interview with the new President as part of our piece.

And so it was, that after the main ceremonies, we were led up to the presidential offices and awaited our scheduled interview. Our tour-guide showed us round the Presidential offices. They were what estate agents would undoubtedly describe as "lavishly appointed" rooms which had only recently belonged to the deposed warlord Charles Taylor.

Amongst the endless gold-leaf, discarded chandeliers and carpets so deep you needed a machete to cross the room, there was a rather peculiar treasure. Charles Talyor had a purpose-built personal barber shop. Mirrored on every side (allegedly to prevent anyone creeping up on him while he was being shaved) and complete with Liberian flags and yet more chandeliers.

It was not a huge room and photographing it without getting myself in the picture took a bit of careful composition and acrobatics on my part. Charlie Alpha was not so restrained, and instantly wanted a picture of herself in the chair. Naturally I obliged, knowing full-well that it would join the litany of our travel pictures that might eventually appear in one of her books.

When President Sirleaf appeared she was softly authoritative, friendly and very patient considering her pressing schedule. 

"Can you believe all this?" she said, Jesturing around the room to the luxurious carpet with the national emblem and the then upwards to the ceiling on which was painted the most amazing scene of Charles Taylor, wrapped in the national flag (which stretched the length of the room) attended by seraphin and cheurbim.

"I would have preferred it painted over, but it is not really a priority at this moment." she added, nicely understating the challenges that were facing her country and her administration.

Nevertheless, when it came to take her portrait I couldn't resist framing her in this environment. The new face of Liberia against the trappings of the old regime.

The hope for a new start, surrounded by the reminders of why Liberia so desperately needed that renewal.

More than five years later, her Presidency has prevailed and brought stability and peace to the country. I think it's fantastic news that she and her fellow compatriot, the peace activist Leymah Gbowee have been honored alongside Yemen's Tawakkul Karman who is engaged with the beginning of a similar struggle to achieve peace and justice in her own country.