I spent the winter holidays in London at my teenaged daughter’s urging. I asked her to consider a warmer clime, but she was adamant. She has used up her chips, for the predictable future. It was — surprise — cold, rainy, and crowded.
Yet I hadn’t been to London since 1989 (I can’t believe that). A Paris devotee, and a working woman, I have to make choices about where I spend my transatlantic time, and Paris has won every time for the last five years. This was the first English-language venture in a while. I did want to see the NEW London — and for those who know London at all, you know that covers a lot of re-dug and redistributed ground in the last two decades.
As for viewing photographic exhibits — mine was not the only vote on destinations, so I glanced at only two. They were both marvelous: a compact and intense history of photography from the archives of the Victoria and Albert Museum (so tucked away that several of the V&A employees had no idea how to direct me), and an exhibit at the Photographers’ Gallery of Jacques Henri Lartigue’s intimate photos of his wife, Bibi. By “intimate” I really mean snapshots, mostly, only with Lartigue we are not talking snapshots in the usual connotation of that word. I wrote a bit about that exhibit in a dedicated London blog, here.
But I did take my own photographs in London. (Here is the link to my massive Flickr set on the London trip.) I have grown fond of traveling with a small camera, for all the usual reasons, and I have grown very fond of my Panasonic Lumix GX1 for that purpose. It’s a miraculous little camera: cool looking (that’s important), with speedy focusing and a touch screen that together make street photography ridiculously possible. I should point out to anyone who doesn’t obsessively research cameras (which will be all the people who have already fallen asleep in this paragraph, so there is some irony here) that the GX1 is a micro 4/3 camera, which gives it interchangeable lenses and a sensor that lands between the typical compact camera sensor and the DSLR (big girl camera) sensor. Cameras are all about the communication between lens and sensor, and (sensor) size DOES matter, a lot. In an early September trip to Paris about which I blogged endlessly here, I often used that GX1 camera at body level (though it doesn’t have a flip screen, and I really hate the expensive, awkward, returned-to-Amazon external electronic viewfinder) to grab images of people walking toward me or kids playing with parents nearby. My kids find this street-photographer behavior very creepy, even though I try to explain the historic romance of it. Ah well. I fall back on my innocuous grey-haired lady status.
I have grown to admire and love the GX1 body, but initially I used it as a (for one brief shining moment) cheap vehicle for the legendary Lumix 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens. (Amazon brought the GX1 price way down briefly after Panasonic announced its successor, the GX7. I noticed this and did a grab-and-go.) For this trip I added another prime for telephoto, but rarely used it even though it’s also a great lens (the M. Zuiko 45mm f/1.8). These camera/lens combinations are forgiving and the images feel rich to me — I can trust the camera with challenging textures and low light situations. I don’t even own the kit lens that came with the GX1 — I had it with another camera and found it boring and mediocre. But these primes are amazing. There’s a new Panasonic micro 4/3 body, the GM1, and you can bet that as a gearhead I’m eyeing that one. It’s tiny, with apparently an even better sensor, and all the things I really dig about these Lumix cameras. AND … it seems to be silent. Even without the mirror, the GX1 makes a bit of a *CLUNK* sound when I push the button. Not subtle. The trade-off won’t, apparently, be image quality, but ergonomics. The GX1 feels good in the hand and has a perfect bump-out grip on the right side. The GM1 is slender and sleek, like the Sony RX100. It also has a new kit lens that is purportedly better than the ho-hum kits Panasonic has been offering.
So what did I shoot? Everything. That’s my way of saying that for someone who loves words, I’m way behind in being able to articulate what it is that grabs me when I ‘m wandering the streets. We were staying in Bloomsbury, which for a kid who read books (that’s me, not the other one) is like strolling through heaven with street signs and historic plaques. The University of London buildings don’t exactly blow one away with sumptuous elegance, but the British Museum makes up for any dearth of classy public architecture in the neighborhood, and there’s plenty of classy, understated, soothing private architecture at hand in that region of residential squares. Plus the Hotel Russell, which looms like the late Victorian behemoth it is over one side of Russell Square.
I spent five or six mornings in the British Museum, because it was local, because there was tea in the Great Court, and because I needed a BIG dose of history-cum-art while my daughter slept, as teens seem to want to do.
I had always understood that both the BM and the V&A were catchment basins for the spoils of imperial looting or random objects that spilled out of people’s attics and rolled toward London. Though maybe those generalizations used to be true, both institutions have tried to move in sophisticated ways beyond their founding occasions. Of course the British Museum is also known to anglophiles as the site of the famous Reading Room where Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Virginia Woolf, and numbers of other movers and shakers did their thing in the olden days. That space is still there, but not being used as a reading room right now — that function having defaulted to the new British Library by St. Pancras Station. I love shooting vast spaces, and I love shooting sculpture. Maybe it’s just because the pieces don’t move around. It also must be my version of vacation snapshots — to remember where I’ve been.
AND speaking of vast spaces and sculpture, the massive Paul Day sculpture in the likewise massive St. Pancras Station is something that somebody should have told me about so I didn’t just happen upon it accidentally. Not that this was a bad experience — quite the opposite. I suppose that kind of serendipity is one part of the magic of huge cities; I can’t begin to imagine the magnitude of things missed. What can you do in a week? What can you miss in a week? At any rate, “The Meeting Place” is nine meters tall — a man and woman embracing, surrounded on the base of the statue by bronze figures in all manner of waiting postures. It is breathtaking.
And then we had to leave. Seeing the great St. Pancras station the day before departure was a fitting last monument. (It was only after I got back to the flat that I remembered that the adjacent Kings Cross holds the Harry Potter luggage cart embedded in one of the brick walls at the side of the station. Next time.)
People who sketch while traveling say that the sketching makes them slow down and experience every tint and angle of the scene before them. I understand that, and I envy them both the experience and the skill or courage that allows them to draw the scene with their own hand. Photography does something similar thing for me, only I really am much more on the fly as I shoot the pictures — and as I say, many photos are grabbed, so that I have to be on the fly, or experience that awkward moment as my subject figures out he really was my subject and not just an accidental foreground object. I wrote in a blog post in September that I was becoming rather shameless in photographing strangers on the street. Even more shameless are my pathetic subterfuges as I glance away from the viewfinder or pull the camera from my eye and gaze at something off to the side, as if that was my prey and not the person or group right in front of me.
Enough. Another time I’ll delve into what is most interesting and mysterious, which is how photographers decide what to photograph.
Here’s the link to that whole London blog: