Tuesday, June 30, 2009


Yes, "absent without blogging" is indeed the crime, and I plead "guilty as charged".

It's been a busy month, what with a fair bit of travel at the beginning and a quarter close at the end, both combining to take away whatever spare time there ever is in this life and making it seem like 30 days went by in 10.

Having said that, thanks to a friend in San Francisco we managed to see two operas in one June weekend, namely Tosca and Porgy & Bess. I've seen Tosca once before many years ago but didn't remember it that well going in to see this performance. Thankfully, it was a very strong production that was well sung and extremely well acted, so it was easy to reconnect very quickly with the tragic Tosca and the death-by-accidental-but-non-accidental-shooting of her lover, all set against a backdrop of Napoleon's successful Italian campaign of 1800. A very human and - for an Italian opera - very straightforward work that is truly timeless.

For me at least, Porgy and Bess was a complete unknown, other than of course having heard some of Gershwin's music extracted and turned into show tunes over the years. Leaving aside the controversy over what may or may not be no more than stereotypical presentations of African Americans, as a complete operatic body of work it's extremely well written and the performance on the night was absolutely top-notch. As required in the original writing, it featured an all-black cast that collectively delivered performances with real depth and sparkle, ably bringing to the fore the various individual roles that this opera features. Turns out that this is of particular importance here because it's as much an ensemble piece as it is a vehicle for the eponymous Porgy and Bess, something I certainly never realised beforehand.

Couple of interesting things struck me. Firstly, it's clear the drug trade had much better marketing in those days. Branding coke as "happy dust" beats anything the dealers have come up with subsequently. Who wouldn't want to try some happy dust versus, say, a pinch of smack, crack or horse? Secondly, for coastal folk they appear to have an unnatural fear of buzzards. The venerable albatross I could understand; seagulls, too, have their detractors; but buzzards? By the coast? Must be a southern thing.

Ah yes, the race question. It is hard to ignore, so let's not. From my standpoint, the simple answer is that after 75 years it's time to put that whole tortured and difficult debate to the rear, and focus instead on the role it plays as a work of art. And one of the purposes of art, surely, is to reflect the period in which it was produced, capturing a point in time through one of the (now increasing) array of media via which artistic vision can be successfully expressed. "It is what it is", in short; the product of a gifted white male who wanted to use an existing novel by DuBose Heyward as the basis for a folk opera.

What may look dated and stereotypical to us wasn't of course viewed the same way by observers in the mid 1930s, and indeed the work was often met with contemporary criticism regarding its portrayal of poor black workers. This prevailed over many years, and was apparently still evident in the 1970s.

As I saw mentioned elsewhere, it's a worthwhile exercise to perform a little thought experiment here: how differently would we view this work if it comprised the basic same libretto, directions and music, except with an all white setting? Would there have been the same outcry because of the negative view shown of poor white fishermen by such a production? Would we have decried the idea that poor whites can only resolve their problems through violence or temporarily escape their poverty through drink, drugs and gambling? Likely not, and so I prefer to think of this work in a color-blind way, enjoying it as theatre, as opera, as art, and not as a piece of social commentary.

As always, your mileage may vary!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Not An Award You Want To Win

Following on from the last few posts, something caught my eye today as I was checking the news. So here's the question: which country holds the unfortunate record of being the "most bombed nation on earth?"

Turns out the answer isn't WWII-era Germany, Russia or even the UK. The unlucky recipient of this dubious award is in fact Laos, at least according to this article. During the Vietnam war, some two million tons of high explosive rained down on Laos, costing some $7 billion dollars in total. This tonnage, "exceeds all the raids launched by every side in Europe during the whole of World War II."

Alas, the danger is not past. In the same article it states that even today there remains some 600,000 tons of unexploded ordnance to plague the population today, leading to an estimated 6,000-plus deaths since 1975.

Despite the obvious dangers, the Laotians have become adept at foraging parts from all the metal littering the countryside, turning them into very serviceable everyday items such as razor blades and roof guttering.

UXO clearance activities are proceeding, and it's actually well paid work in a country where high levels of poverty still remain, but with such a huge task facing them it will be many decades yet before the country is given the all clear.

Hope springs eternal that we'll manage to avoid making this kind of mistake in the future, and indeed smart bombs do seem to be greatly reducing the total tonnage used in conflicts whilst in parallel increasing the effectiveness of what is dropped. Still and all, we should never underestimate the ability of the human race to completely screw over the earth and a few of its inhabitants in the name of national security or political influence.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

P-51 Mustang #5

Given that I am now back on US soil once again and replete with access to a (mostly) working PC, combined with broadband that doesn't cost 15 quid a day ... yes, I'm talking about you the Sofitel Hotel at Terminal 5, LHR ... then here's one more shot from the Mustang adventure. I like this one as it evokes a "late-afternoon, mission accomplished, returning to base" kind of feel.

As you may have noticed, I've been posting more black and white shots to my Flickr account to accompany the past few entries. I recently got a copy of George DeWolf's book on black and white processing and printing and so have been trying to put to work some of what's covered in there. Quick form review? Finally, a photographic book that manages to merge together both the artistic with the practical, and from which you can really learn. It does a really good job of starting from scratch, using the science of perception to explain how the brain assembles a view of the world that combines luminance and reflectance, hence pointing the way forward to creating images that really resonate with the viewer. From there, the author walks you through a workflow aimed at unlocking the optimal B&W image from the raw (RAW?) data provided by the image sensor that actually doesn't take into account at all how we see the world around us. George uses both Lightroom and Photoshop in his approach, and via those tools really digs into exactly what it is about a classic, full tone B&W print that gives it the punch and impact that you can see from a mile-off but which I for one have always struggled to systematically produce. Highly recommended.

Oh, and of course the picture above is in colour!

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

P-51 Mustang #4

The B-24 was loaded with 5 bombs and was going to be starting its run at around 3,000 feet each time. The Twin Beech was stationed to port of the Liberator and we, in the P-51, were to starboard. As soon as turned onto approach for the drop zone I quickly realised that this was to give the camera plane the luxury of having the sun behind them, shining onto the Mustang and the Liberator and giving the perfect lighting set up. Alas, that meant I was shooting into the sun, hence the need to process the above somewhat to bring back some detail!

Adding in a few practice runs, combined with three single-bomb missions plus one double, we must have spent close to an hour running this segment of the flight, sometimes flying just above or below the flight level held by the B-24 but basically staying in formation.

Accuracy? They were doing pretty well on the north/south line-up, according to the spotters on the ground and in the air at least, but continually striking the ground some 200 to 300 yards to the right of the target. Still, that's not bad for bomb sight technology that's over 60 years old.

All too soon it was time to head back, land, and allow the ground crew to prep the planes for the second mission of the day, one that was now destined to be more like a night raid than a day time one given that it was 6:30 pm already.

All-in-all, a fun day and one I will remember for life. My only disappointment was that at no time do we really push the P-51 to do anything other than fly somewhat meekly around, sticking in the shadow of the B-24. This was a bit like getting a ride in a Ferrari 288 GTO and finding that the driver was limited to doing no more than 50 mph and using only 3,000 rpm. Understandable, but a shame nonetheless.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

P-51 Mustang #3

Finally, it was time to fly. Getting into the rear cockpit was easy and because of the age of the plane - even though it was pretty much in "as new" condition but brought up to date with modern instruments - I was pleased to get a parachute as well as harness belts. A decent headset rounded off the package along with precise instruction as to where the sick bag was stashed, something that was never even remotely needed.

My pilot, Stu, was pretty well versed in flying these things, having first learned 50 years ago the ins and outs of a P-51 flying, as he said, "when the ammo was still live" during the cold war! In addition, Stu actually owns his own P-51 so it's hard to think of anyone more qualified to sit up front and man the controls.

We taxied out to 29R and took off without drama, setting into a circling patter at 1,500 feet over the airfield waiting for the Twin Beech and B-24 to get airborne and catch up. This seemed to take quite a bit longer than Stu anticipated, but I didn't mind. It was fun just to watch the various planes moving around the airfield and getting prepped for takeoff.

Once the group was together, things headed east to the bombing zone, a mown strip of land graciously donated for the day by a local farmer and sitting some 30 miles east of Stockton.

Monday, June 1, 2009

P-51 Mustang #2

My P-51 ride was really an adjunct to another activity, a two day camp, built around the B-24, aimed at giving participants a feel for what it was like to fly a mission in one of those WWII bombers, though of course without the risk of being shot at by fiendish, well-gunned Nazis. From what I heard, this involved gunnery training, some history and a fair bit of waiting around, which all sounds to me very authentic, especially the "waiting around" bit.

According to the advance paperwork, I was supposed to accompany the first flight of the day at 10 am. I actually took off just after 4:30 pm so I too got to appreciate the "hurry up and wait" aspect of the armed services. Still, that gave me plenty of time to roam around with the camera for a while. And yes, Stockton in the summer means very harsh light with temperatures to match, hence the extensive use of black and white in the pictures I'll be posting!

In good war time fashion, participants took the opportunity to scrawl on the ordnance encouraging slogans intended, presumably, to give the bomb disposal teams something to read whilst they were dismantling stuff that hadn't gone bang upon impact.

Also associated with the camp were a group from Arizona who were helping out and who dressed the part, setting up shop in the premises of Vintage Aviation, a company run out of Stockton airport who restore vintage equipment, including the Twin Beech seen acting as a camera platform in one of the shots I'm posting. They did a great job and truly added some atmosphere so thanks, guys, much appreciated.