‘Found abstract’ photographs

Out taking photographs of some favourite spots in the Mendips recently, I came across this ‘found abstract ‘ image in the landscape. It’s a mix of textures (the fuzzy felt of the grass, the smooth surface of the water) and colours.

Found abstractLayered textures

Ed Knepley has an interesting post on the subject of ‘found abstracts’ over on his great blog Photo Improvementhttp://edkphoto.wordpress.com/2012/01/24/finding-an-abstract/  

I’ve also posted this image over on the Contemplative Photography site Seeing Freshhttp://seeingfresh.com/

I feel drawn to the practice of this type of photography, but find it hard to just see and not just grasp at making pictures. Practice, practice, practice…

On pilgrimage in holy Russia II: visions and springs

After the liturgy at Shamordino convent Dima leads us pilgrims down a walkway towards the holy springs. Sometimes it seems that the whole of Russia has sprung a massive series of leaks there are so many springs, often associated with a particular saint or holy man and each with specific healing qualities.

The walkway turns into a steep set of steps to negotiate a slope. We stop on a platform at the top of the slope to admire the view, whilst Dima tells us that it was here that the Elder Amvrosy from Optina Pustyn monastery had a vision of the Mother of God in the sky telling him to found a convent on this spot.

Site of the Elder Amvrosy’s vision

As I listen to the story, I come under attack from mosquitoes and I am swatting them away, when suddenly I brush my glasses off my face and over the side of the platform. I think I see something move where they hit the weeds and I crawl under the railing and drop down to the ground to look for them. Dima is still talking and, as I glance back up at the platform, several fellow pilgrims are watching what the curious Englishman is up to grubbing among the wormwood and nettles. Panicking that they are lost for good, I am just about to give up when I see them, slightly twisted and muddy where I have trodden on them during my search.

At the bottom of the slope is a chapel over a spring where people are collecting water in plastic bottles. A queue of people is waiting outside a sort of kiosk to bathe in the spring water. We press on though to another spring in the forest which turns out to be a standpipe with a trickle of water issuing from it. Apparently it is particularly good for eyesight.  Dima kindly gives me some of the holy water in a spare bottle for me to take back to my hosts.

By now the midday sun is scorching hot as we struggle back up the steep steps to the convent. All pilgrims are invited by the nuns to lunch in the refectory at long, heavy wooden tables with benches: a simple meal of macaroni soup, kasha (buckwheat), black bread and apple compote, book-ended by prayers. My fellow pilgrims tuck in heartily, but I am conscious of the large packed lunch back on the bus that Ekaterina, the wife of my host family, has prepared for me.

Before we get back on the bus, Dima takes me to see the simple grave of Tolstoy’s sister, Maria,  which lies under a strange bifurcated lime tree. She became nun in the late 1880s, under the spiritual guidance of the Elder Amvrosy, and lived at the convent until her death aged 82 in 1912. Dima tells me that if Tolstoy had lived a little longer he would have come back into the Orthodox Church (he was excommunicated as a heretic in 1901). I think that’s unlikely as the divisions between Tolstoy and the Church were far too deep. But who knows? When Tolstoy left his estate for the last time before his death in October 1910 to become a wandering pilgrim, with nothing but the clothes on his back, he went first to the Optina Pustyn monastery for spiritual guidance and then came to visit his sister, Maria, here at Shamordino. From near here he took the train, intending to travel south to the Caucasus, but was taken ill and died at Astapovo station.

History suddenly doesn’t seem that remote.

On pilgrimage in holy Russia I: Shamordino Convent

I am sitting on a bus early on Sunday morning in late May with a party of Russians of all ages, the only  English speaker on board. Full of anticipation and excitement, I am off on a pilgrimage to one of Russian Orthodoxy’s holiest monasteries at Optina Pustyn, in the Kaluga region, about 200 miles south of Moscow.

Our leader is Dmitry Borisovich (Dima), a thin, balding, intense man in his early thirties. He phoned last night to tell me that the group would be meeting at 7.00am ‘by the three bayonets’. I looked blankly at my hosts as I relay this instruction to them. It turns out that ‘the three bayonets’ are a soaring modern steel sculpture with an eternal flame in central Tula, a monument to those who died in the Great Patriotic War (what the Russians call World War II).

As we move out of Tula and into the Kaluga region, the countryside changes from gently rolling hills and woods to a more hilly, heavily forested terrain. Our first stop after three hours is the Shamordino convent. Founded with the blessing of the Elder Amvrosy of Optina Pustyn in 1884., at its height in the 1890s it had over 500 nuns. It was closed in 1918 and the buildings allowed to become derelict. Built in red brick with very distinctive black cupolas, it features the kokoshnik (peasant head-dress) design everywhere. Over the past few years it has been restored and 100 nuns are living here now.

It’s really hot as we get off the bus and I’m looking forward to getting some fresh air, and taking some photographs. Dima stops me and tells me not to wear a hat in the grounds of the convent and not to take photographs. I’m really disappointed about not using my camera.

Dima leads us into the main church of the convent which, unusually for an Orthodox church, is very bare with plain white walls, wooden floor, half-built iconostasis and few icons on show. The choir consists of three nuns standing round a large, wooden service book stand, as the priest and deacon officiate. Their voices are calm and quiet as they sing the old znamenny chant, rather than the more modern chant (dating from the late eighteenth century) that we think of as typically Russian Orthodox.

As is the custom our party splits into men standing on the right of the church and women on the left, joining the rest of the nuns who are already standing or sitting on low wooden benches. At the end of the service, the priest invites us up to the front to kiss the cross and I am only allowed to do this after Dima checks that it is OK with the priest.

The nuns form a crocodile and, two by two, with the leading and trailing pairs of nuns carrying black lanterns on poles, they process out of the church followed by the priest and deacon. And as they leave, they sing the Easter verse, their pace in time with the rhythm of the chant:

Christ is risen from the dead,

Conquering death through death.

And to those in their tombs

Has he given life.

 It’s a very moving and uplifting sight.

From dream to reality

It’s a late Saturday morning in May, the temperature is in the high 20s and it’s my first full day in Russia. I am being driven through the streets of Tula by my host, Iosif, accompanied by his 18-year-old daughter. We are on our way to meet up with the rest of my group – English people of a certain age with an interest in all things Russian. Our friend, Natasha, who has organised our trip is married to an Englishman and lives in the UK, but was born and brought up here in Tula.

Iosif is driving a Zhiguli with regulation sticking door. I’ve noticed on my many trips to other parts of eastern Europe that cars have either a door that won’t open properly or an ominously large crack on the windscreen.

To be honest, I am in full-blown culture shock. For over 35 years I have been learning Russian, speaking Russian, reading Russian Literature and history, listening to Russian music, singing Russian folk songs, drinking Russian vodka and imagining what Russia is like. But now I am actually here for the very first time, as a 50th birthday present from my darling wife, totally immersed in the country with a family that doesn’t speak English. My brain is on overload and my ear has not yet got used to the speed of normal Russian speech.

Our party meets outside the Palace of Pioneers (Dvorets pionyerov) and makes its way over to the red brick walled Tula Kremlin. Today is the feast day of SS Cyril and Methodius, celebrated in Soviet times as the Day of Literacy, the formulators of the Cyrillic alphabet based on Greek. A small group of young people in peasant costumes are performing folk dances and small stalls sell craft items, books and pryaniki (honey and spice biscuits – a particular speciality of Tula). I’m attracted to a display of old artefacts: butter churns; an ancient Tula samovar (Tula is famed for the manufacture of these characteristically Russian items) studded with little medals showing all the fairs where it has been exhibited; and a pre-Revolution school textbook for teaching Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church.

The land inside the Kremlin is an expanse of grass. At the Revolution the Bolsheviks destroyed the old churches and flattened the old cemetery, replacing it with a football pitch. The building that dominates the Kremlin is the Cathedral of the Dormition which dates back to the second half of the eighteenth century. In the Soviet era it was used as a warehouse and the huge icons on the walls and columns painted over. Slowly the painstaking process of restoration is taking place and the inside is full of scaffolding. The iconostasis apparently used to have so much gilding on it that it looked as if it were on fire.

I am stunned to see an icon of the Imperial family murdered by the Bolsheviks with a single candle in front of it. Dressed in medieval costumes they hold candles and have saints’ haloes round their heads; the Russian Orthodox Church has canonised them as ‘passion bearers’, martyrs who died in Christian humility, the lowest rung of sainthood.

Outside it’s so fiercely hot that I have to keep moving from shady patch to shady patch to keep cool. A concert is in progress, with music performed by the Yasnaya Polyana Ensemble, named after Tolstoy’s estate not 14 miles away. It’s a mix of light classics and Russian folk songs performed by baritone and soprano with surprisingly strong voices. People are just wondering round, sitting down to listen to the music and then moving on as the fancy takes them.

Back at the Palace of Pioneers we have a small welcoming party with songs and dances performed by enthusiastic children and even English poetry learnt by heart (“My heart is in the Highlands…”) performed by star students.

Outside whilst waiting for Iosif to pick me up, I cross the road to get a better view of the Palace and to take a photograph. It’s then that I see the year under pediment over the entrance: ‘1937’.

A chill runs through me on this hot spring day. This is the year that Stalin’s Great Terror reached its height. Under Yezhov, head of the NKVD (predecessor of the KGB) the purges cut a swathe through all levels of Soviet society and cowered the whole population.  Millions of lives were rubbed out on a whim of a dictator, his gang of thugs and the party apparatus that kept it in power. Families of the condemned were split up and sent to the camps or the children placed in orphanages, becoming outcasts in their own society. The numbers involved in this state-imposed madness are almost incomprehensible, the suffering hard to imagine.

Today has been quite an introduction to the reality of this land of my dreams.

The maker of katsounas

It’s a hot summer’s afternoon and we are driving round in circles looking for a village on the eastern side of Lake Kournas in Crete. I am beginning to think it doesn’t exist, but there it is on the map. We’ve been through the same village square at least twice and are none the wiser. The last time we asked, I thought I had understood the shop owner’s directions in Greek, but clearly not.

We stop again for directions and as I jump out of the car to ask a local relaxing outside a cafe, another car pulls up behind us and a woman manages to get to him before I do. To his bemusement there is now a little queue waiting to speak to him. Although the woman is driving a car with a Swedish numberplate, she speaks to him in broken English. The local man speaks the odd English word and that coupled with gestures manages to bridge the great communication divide. The Swedish woman looks happy and returns to her car, apparently confident she knows where she’s going. Feeling brave again, I ask him for the village in Greek and this time I think I’ve got it.

Now we are alongside the lake, but the only right turn is not signed. As we carry on down the hill I see it in the sidemirror, only visible if you’re coming from the north. Doing a U-turn, we see that it’s the right turn to ‘Mouri’.

We are in search of a maker of katsounas. A katsouna is a Cretan shepherd’s crook. I know this odd word from reading Christopher Somerville’s book The Golden Step: A Walk Through the Heart of Crete in which he walked the length of the island from east to west, supported by his white figwood katsouna carved for him by a Cretan friend. This katsouna, in addition to its main function as a walking stick, attracts the admiration of the villagers he meets who have never seen anything like it.

I had never seen one at all until I noticed a strange twisted stick hanging from the curtain pole of our villa. At first I thought it was something to do with the curtains but when I unhooked it from the curtain pole I realised that it must be a katsouna. Stefanos, our host, confirmed it. Many shops sell them, but they are often sad excuses for a katsouna, churned out for the tourist market.

Then one day we were talking to someone who recalled that there was a maker of proper katsounas who lived near Lake Kournas. Hence this quest.

Mouri is hardly a village, just a few houses strung along a road and there is no sign of a katsouna maker. We turn round and stop outside a house with double green doors that might possibly be a cafe. An old man with white hair and bushy beard appears at the door. I tell him that we are looking for the man who makes katsounas. He disappears behind one half of the green doors and there is a rattling sound, as if he is gathering up an armful of hockey sticks and then he re-appears with about half a dozen of them.

He has been making these sticks for years. Once again I am frustrated that my Greek is so limited that I can’t ask him how he makes them. I would love to know what wood they are made from, how he chooses the right branches, how he makes the curved end of the crook, but I can’t make myself understood and I struggle to follow his mumbled Greek. Often these shepherds crooks are made from mulberry, but he doesn’t seem to think that the one I choose is. He produces his own katsouna for me to admire, a splendid split stemmed one that he has varnished.

Before I leave I manage to persuade him to let me take his photograph. Which version do you prefer?

Occupy London and the English Civil War: a contemporary link

                    Tents outside the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Putney

This year is the 365th anniversary of a key event in English political history which has a curious link with the current Occupy London movement.

From 28 October – 11 November 1647 a series of debates took place between the radical elements in the New Model Army’ rank and file and their senior officers about the nature of society. The radicals wanted ‘one man, one vote’, authority in the country to be vested in the House of Commons rather than the King and the House of Lords. In addition they declared certain ‘native rights’ for all Englishmen: freedom of conscience, freedom from impressment into the armed forces and equality before the law. Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, speaking as a radical, memorably encapsulated the aspiration for universal suffrage when he said:

For really I think that the poorest hee that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest hee; and therefore truly, Sr, I think itt clear, that every Man that is to live under a Government ought first by his own Consent to put himself under that Government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that Government that he hath not had a voice to put Himself under.

We know what took place, at least for the first few days, as the debates were recorded verbatim until 2 November when all recording ceased.

Clearly the senior officers were alarmed by these proposals, particularly for universal suffrage, which they saw as a step towards anarchy. The King’s escape from capture overtook events and the debates were brought to an end, never published and the radicals in the Army persecuted.

What has this got to do with Occupy?

The events of 365 years ago were probably the first time that a genuine democratic debate involving ordinary people took place in this country, the first time that ordinary people looked at society and thought there might be a different way forward rather than the status quo.

The debates took place at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Putney (SW London). In 2007, on the 360th anniversary, the then rector opened a permanent exhibition to the debates at the Church and organised a series of commemorative events. The rector went on to become Canon Chancellor at St Paul’s Cathedral before the events around the Occupy encampment forced him to resign in October 2011. His name? Rev Dr Giles Fraser.