michael hughes’s blog

The making of… Bilbao

Posted in The making of... by michaelhughes on February 15, 2009
bilbao, spain by you.
Jeff Koons “Puppy” at the Guggenheim in Bilbao



The nice people who promote Spain in Frankfurt arrange trips for journalists which I go on one, sometimes twice a year. In Spring 2002 a small group of intrepid journalists set off to explore Bilbao and other parts of Galizia over an extended weekend. We arrived at Bilbao airport at night. The place is shaped like two wings, designed by Santiago Calatrava, but I had the impression walking out of the terminal that night as if I was leaving a monumental cave. We were driven to eat a steak at a local restaurant in the old part of the city where the guest can drink wine out of potes; wine served in little glasses. 

The next day we set off from our hotel via a park set on a hill to the north of the city for our visit to the Guggenheim. The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao nestles in a bend of the river Nervion the glistening titanium panels catch the sun as it flits in and out of the clouds rolling in from the Bay of Biscay. Some say that the building built by Frank Gehry, using three dimensional imaging, looks like a ship gone aground and certainly, the connection could be made between this exotic ship which came to bring back prosperity to the city after all the trading ships and docklands had faded away, leaving Bilbao to ponder on its further existence. Uninformed a I was, I thought the edifice looked like a fish, sporting in the waves, the tail fin at the east side of the building caught upwards in a muscular convulsion prior to propelling the body onward.

We looked down over Bilbao, and an idea struck me; why not make a Souvenir photo using a fish to put in front of the building. We parked the bus and I told the rest of the group that I was going to look for a fishmongers instead of doing the tour. First of all I wanted to visit a friend of mine; Erika who is the official photographer at the museum, a woman I had met in Berlin through a photographer friend, David Hornback. After exchanging the news, I asked her where I could find a fishmonger and went off on my quest.

After fifteen minutes, asking people with sign language and broken spanish where I could buy fish, leaving any amount of be and amused people in my wake, I found the shop. Studying the wares carefully, I decided I needed a fish with a clear tail fin form and a deep chest to approximately duplicate the form of the building. I selected a fine looking Dorada by pointing at it and nodding, paid the price and headed back to the museum. 

Arriving there a few minutes later with my fish beginning to soak through the paper in the plastic bag, I saw the first main problem; the museum is built roughly west to east, the head of the fish to the west and the tail east. This meant that the only clear view of the building is from the north looking across the river. As we live in the northern hemisphere it means that the sun comes from the south and that now, just after midday, I had to photograph against the light. I estimated that my time was running out, as the group would soon be finished with their tour but I thought I would give it a try so I hurried over the bridge, turned left onto the Unibertsitate Etorbidea street and down to the west looking for a clear view of the building. The character of the city changes once you get over the bridge. The road is more like a motorway and you become aware of the industrial site which has been demolished into which the Guggenheim has been inserted. At about 150 yards I found an opening and set up the shot. I pulled the fish out of the bag, peeled off the, by now, thoroughly wet, fish and held it up in front of the lens. I’m not a man to disappoint easily but this was the pits. Against the light in front of a building which suddenly looked in no way like the fish I had bought and with the necessity of holding it one-handed while turning its tail upwards to emulate Gehry’s flourish, was difficult in the extreme. It is no easy matter fighting single-handed against gravity and rigor mortis and I soon gave up, not without having given many a Spaniard a sight to tell their grand children about.

Back over the bridge and a little out of breath, I was just in time to meet the group who were coming out of their tour and alighting the bus. They knew what I had been attempting and one of the women showed me a key ring she had bought with Jeff Koons’ Puppy. Right in front of me was the object itself so I pulled out the camera again and “did” the puppy. It was some consolation for the wasted effort with the fish. The space in front of the museum is very interesting, it allows for unusual perspectives and shutting off the background using the facade. Lining up the key ring for the “Puppy” shot I was reminded of a photo series I had seen in Creative Camera in the seventies called “Pictus Interruptus” by Ray K. Metzker. His beautiful monochrome photographs have photographic spaces in which extraneous objects intervene to disturb the reading of the image. This was the reason why I tried leaving the key ring of the “Puppy” out of focus. Probably partly because of my recollection of “Pictus Interruptus” and partly because of the space in the image which reminds me of the space in one of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s pictures of the fat man walking through an urban space where the walls of an apartment house with asymmetrically arranged windows close up the background. I like the image, but although it has been viewed over 50,000 times in Flickr it has few favourites or comments. 

It is customary, of course, for groups such as ours to give a tip at the end of the day. Our bus driver was a keen cook who had appraised my fish. So, apart from money, he got the fish, to take home and cook. 

Flickr Index: 51,515 views, 6 Faves, 4 Comments (two of them mine)




The making of… Loreley

Posted in The making of... by michaelhughes on January 5, 2009


Loreley Cliffs on the Rhine mear Mainz in Germany 1999

Loreley Cliffs on the Rhine near Mainz in Germany 1999
















At the end of November I was on assignment for the Finnish daily newspaper “Helsingin Sanomat”. Heikki Aittokoski, the German Correspondent and myself were doing a story about the Loreley legend which was why we were perched up on a hill top above the river Rhine on this bleak day. The light was completely dead and the colours could, at best, be described as pastel.


The Rhine is very deep and narrow here and it is one of the most dangerous places in the Upper Rhine Valley. So dangerous, in fact, that St Goar settled there to nurse ship-wrecked mariners back to health. At this spot, legend has it, Loreley threw herself from the cliffs on the way to a convent  because her lover had been unfaithful. In the romantic ballad written by Clemens Brentano in 1801, where Loreley appears for the first time, the woman’s ghost sits thereafter on the rocks, combing her golden hair and luring ships to their destruction. Later Heinrich Heine wrote the poem which was later set to music by Friedrich Silcher. I give you Heinrich Heine’s “The Loreley”;


I cannot determine the meaning
Of sorrow that fills my breast:
A fable of old, through it streaming,
Allows my mind no rest.

The air is cool in the gloaming
And gently flows the Rhine.
The crest of the mountain is gleaming
In fading rays of sunshine.

The loveliest maiden is sitting
Up there, so wondrously fair;
Her golden jewelry is glist’ning;
She combs her golden hair.

She combs with a gilded comb, preening,
And sings a song, passing time.
It has a most wondrous, appealing
And pow’rful melodic rhyme.

The boatman aboard his small skiff, –
Enraptured with a wild ache,
Has no eye for the jagged cliff, –
His thoughts on the heights fear forsake.

I think that the waves will devour
Both boat and man, by and by,
And that, with her dulcet-voiced power
Was done by the Loreley.

Translator: Frank Petersohn


Absolutely lovely.
What had attracted my attention that morning as we left the hotel, was a postcard of the winner of the Miss Loreley competition some years before. My daughter was about five years of age at the time and in the princess phase and I thought it would be nice to give it to her when I got back. It was the reason why it was in my pocket as we left the car and walked over the heath to the cliffs.

The view was great, if a little misty, but was not really an interesting photo for a daily newspaper which needs action and dynamism not landscapes to illustrate its articles. Looking around there were two blasted trees and some boulders and I remembered that the Miss Loreley from the postcard had been draped over a rock. Taking out the postcard, it was immediately obvious that we were standing exactly at the spot the photographer had taken his portrait.

The idea of putting pictures into pictures is not new, I had myself used historical photographs in a reportage I had done just after the wall came down in 1989 in Berlin, holding them into the picture at the same spot. I was soon fiddling around holding the postcard into the lens. Even through the viewfinder, I could see it was going to work and I took a great deal of trouble getting the salient points to match up until the optical illusion was perfect. In situations like this tenths of millimeters make all the difference and it is only later on, in front of the computer that you can actually see which one really makes the cut. In all I shot a roll of film on this one picture. (I was using a Nikon F5 with a 20mm lens, Fujifilm 400 colour negative)

At home, after the trip, everyone was enthusiastic, the newspaper and friends and colleagues. A week later I was on my way to New York, where the idea of Souvenirs really took shape. Looking at the picture after I had scanned it I tried to analyse just what it was that had happened. The first impression is of a window into another world, the second is like a mirror. Later on I realised that I had added the ideal into the reality. The myth is debunked by the surroundings and my hand which plumply draws attention to the artifice. The weather in the postcard is the ideal weather that the media demands, like pensioners in Florida or Spain: permanent blue sky. The girl is blond and busty, feminine in her robe, the myth of the Sirens which has been handed down over so many centuries was illustrated by people like Arthur Rackham and other Art Nouveau practitioners, hence the organic designs of lovely maidens. There could have been an ugly brunette sitting behind the postcard who could sing like hell. Loreley is the most viewed picture of the set on Flickr, it was also used in the National Geographic feature on the series in August 2008.


Flickr index: 170,221 views, 146 faves, 32 comments


The making of… Abbey Road

Posted in The making of... by michaelhughes on January 1, 2009
2007 London, Abbey Road. Zebra crossing and Beatle's Abbey Road CD

2007 London, Abbey Road. Zebra crossing and Beatle's Abbey Road CD

















The Abbey Road picture belongs to my Souvenirs set. It was taken in October 2007. I had previously tried this shot in July 2005, about a week after the London bombings. A combination of factors  made me dissatisfied with the results and I left one (lightly photoshopped) version in the set knowing that I would want to go back to it. 


The problem with the first version was that I had not got close enough to the crossing. The original cover photography was done by Iain Macmillan, who had 10 minutes for the shoot on the 8th August 1969. Macmillan had an elevated perspective with a normal or slightly long lens for the original. According to Wikipedia the man on the pavement in the background is an American tourist who only found out much later that he had been immortalised. On the left of the original picture is a VW Beetle which they had tried to had moved for the shot. The owners lived in the apparment block opposite. Later, the number plate was stolen many times as a souvenir. The car was sold at auction in 1986 for $23,000 and is on display at the VW Museum in Wolfsburg, Germany.


I used the equivalent of  a 24 mm on a Canon 10D for the first shoot. The traffic police came along while I was standing in the middle of the road and told me to move on or put on a signal jacket (which I did not have). I am afraid I let myself get hassled by the situation which lead to the unsatisfactory results.


In 2007 I was a lot more relaxed. This time I had the equivalent of a 17 mm on my Canon 5D (same lens, different chip) and had thought through my strategy. I got into position in the middle of the road (with signal jacket) close up to the crossing and started adjusting the perspective through the lens. This time there was less traffic and I was determined to get a good result. As ever, the whole time cars are coming and going, people walking across the crossing, the usual chaos.  


I found early on in my photography that, although difficult, it is usually good to let a bit of chaos get into your pictures. I like it when things happen in my pictures which I have not planned. Photography is a lot like dancing; you have to move and be aware of what you are dancing with in a long improvised movement in which you press the shutter intuitively. There are at least two aspects to this; one is the risk-taking which keeps you on your toes, the other is humility, the acceptance that complete control always excludes  new ideas you may not have thought of. 


The Abbey Road Studio's entrance

The Abbey Road Studio's entrance

At this moment, where I was all set up, one of those moments happened. Abbey Road is a real holy shrine for Beatles fans; they come from all over the world to sign their names on the wall or to photograph themselves walking across the crossing. Just at that moment five young men from Germany had turned up, dressed in black to do just that. One of them took up a position behing me and to my right, while the other four began the crossing, at first from right to left. 


I used this test run to see if the real figures in my viewfinder were approximately the same size as the Beatles on the CD in my viewfinder, adjusted by moving in a little more, lining up the lines at the side and on the crossing. The problem I was dealing with was that when they were behind the CD they were completely invisible, the joke would come when it would appear that they were walking out of the cover onto the crossing. I realised that the best bet would to have just one of the real figures walking on the crossing at approximately the same distance as between the figures on the cover. The problem with that was that I had no control over the movements of the Germans and would have to hope that luck was with me. And it was; instead of bunching up and hanging around on the edge of the crossing and my picture, they all moved quickly towards the guy with the camera, allowing me to pick off the straggler and make him into the fifth Beatle, apparently alone.


Including setting up, I took 35 pictures which coincidentally is a roll of 35mm film. According to the EXIF I started at 21.10.2007 at 13:00:03 with two test shots for the light began the actual shoot at 13:00:55 and finished at 13:02:39, so that the entire thing lasted about a minute and a half. 


Flickr index: over 42,000 views, 318 faves, 78 comments  http://www.flickr.com/photos/michael_hughes/1732837188/