Tulips, tulips, tulips…

A few days ago, with the temperature soaring in the high twenties, I stopped by the  Canadian Tulip Festival at Dow’s Lake for a few hours with a good friend.

I’ve lived in and around Ottawa (Canada’s capital city) for more than 30 years and I’ve always eagerly awaited this vibrant festival and the wide swaths of colour that adorn the city for weeks while the 1 million tulips are in bloom.

2017 is the 65th anniversary of the festival — one of the largest events of its kind in the world — and this year it coincides with Canada’s 150th birthday. The festival celebrates Ottawa’s official flower as a symbol of international friendship and peace.

As well as tulip displays, the festival also includes music performances, speakers and exhibits of international cuisine as well as fireworks.

In 1945, the Dutch royal family sent 100,000 tulip bulbs to Ottawa to thank Canadians having sheltered Princess Juliana and her daughters for three years during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, in the Second World War. The festival started as a way to showcase this wonderful gift.

The tulips — over 300,000 of them planted by the lake alone — were incredibly diverse in colour and appearance, so much so that some did not even look like tulips. A special feature this year is the Canada 150 tulip bred to look like the Canadian flag.

The people out enjoying the tulip displays were enthusiastic, light-hearted and equally diverse. As well as Ottawans, more than a half a million visitors are drawn to the festival every year. Almost everyone was snapping pictures of the tulips and having their pictures taken among the tulips. It was a joy to behold.

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Las Fallas in Valencia — a once-in-a-lifetime experience…

Believe me, we had NO idea what we were in store for!

When we booked our apartment in Valencia, Spain for the month of March, I was told that we were lucky — we would be there during Las Fallas, a celebration that happened every year at the same time. I did a little research and was looking forward to witnessing a rich cultural tradition wrapped up in an incredible amount of noise and colour and excitement.

But it was one thing to read about it — and another thing entirely to be there while it was happening. Now don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed it all — the parades, the music, the colourful traditional clothing, the throngs of people in the streets, the street parties, the special food and drink, the amazing papier-mache monuments that magically appeared on street corners and in squares all over the city, the gorgeous, elaborate, moving light displays that rose up over the streets.

Yes, I enjoyed it all — EXCEPT for the firecrackers that went off incessantly — at all times of the day, starting in early March and increasing until March 19, the end of the celebration.

I didn’t mind the mascletà, the fireworks display that took place at 2:00 pm every day in the main city square, the Plaza del Ayuntamiento. This is a display of gunpowder explosions that beats out a unique sound.

The mascletà was noisy, but at least it was predictable. I knew when it was going to happen, so I could manage to be far enough away — preferably in a nice sidewalk cafe eating something delicious — so that the noise wouldn’t startle me.

It was the firecrackers that I wasn’t too fond of. They were totally unpredictable.

As the middle of March drew closer, the frequency with which people throughout the city set off firecrackers increased to any time and anywhere. These sharp cracking sounds often startled me and made me jump. Bob seemed to find this very amusing. “I’m sensitive,” I would say, over and over.

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This was not a posed picture, it was street photography, Fallas style.

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More images caught by chance. A common scene as kids all over the city of all ages — in traditional dress and not — had the time of their lives setting off firecrackers in the streets.

But really, the rest of Las Fallas was fascinating and delightful. It’s astounding to watch as an entire city gets wrapped up in a frenzy of sorts, and as tens of thousands of tourists from all over Spain and other countries converge on Valencia.

I can’t tell you how many times we would be sitting at a cafe having tapas and imbibing a beverage or two and a small marching band would come down the narrow street with  trumpets and trombones blaring.

Yes, it’s an excuse for a big party, but it’s much more. What I loved was that it celebrated all aspects of Valencian cultural traditions. You can see every expression of the Valencian identity (music, costumes, rituals). You could not go anywhere for several weeks without seeing girls and boys (falleras and falleros) dressed in 17th and 18th century traditional costumes walking through the streets. And they were usually quite proud and happy to pose for pictures.

So what exactly is Las Fallas? The term actually refers to three things — the celebration itself, the enormous paper-mache monuments in the shape of cartoonish people and things that were often as tall as buildings, and the Fallas community of neighbours that are the moving forces behind the whole festival.

Las Fallas originated from an ancient ritual of spring in which villages put all of the scrap wood and broken furniture from the previous winter into the streets and set it on fire. In a way, it signified getting rid of the old for a new beginning, a kind of purging. The large falla statues have many ninots (smaller figures) attached to them and the whole thing is a feat of engineering. They are constructed in a precise way, so that when they burn they collapse safely. The monuments and ninots generally satirize culture and society, and the themes range from current affairs to local traditions. Yes, Donald Trump was represented.

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This was one of the most popular fallas which was located in the Ruzafa area of Valencia. We saw it the night of la planta as it was being finished. You can see the scale of it compared with the people admiring it.

Before the festivities, we went to see the Exposició de Ninots at the Museum of Science where we could look at the ninots up close. We voted with everybody else (for a small fee) for our favourites, and the winning ones will be saved for next year.  The rest are burned on the night of the cremà.

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A familiar fellow — my size — seen at the Exposició de Ninots. The craftsmanship of the ninots is remarkable.

We met a wonderful Valencian woman named Vicky who told us about Las Fallas from her perspective. Most neighbourhoods have a Fallas club, which spends a whole year raising money and holding parties in order to hire an artist to design and construct a large and exuberant statue that would be the focal point of the celebration for them.

She was part of such a club in the beach area of the city and she was getting more and more excited as the main days of the festivities grew closer. She advised us which areas of the city had the best Fallas and lighting displays. Vicky told us that Las Fallas was run totally by Valencians, it was not government-supported in any way. There is a competitive element too. There are competitions among everyone for the best everything — costumes, fireworks, statues, ninots, lighting displays, you name it. Las Fallas serves as a focus for neighbourhood communities, which strengthens them and keeps them active and cohesive throughout the year.

 

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Ruzafa is known as the area with some of the best lighting displays as well as Fallas so that is where we headed on the night of the planta. I wasn’t sure what time they would be lit so I was in place with my monopod about an hour too early. But it was fun to people-watch. Despite the large numbers, everyone was respectful and in a good mood, and there were no problems whatsoever.

 

As a festival for all the senses, Las Fallas culminate with the cremà, or burning of all the monuments, on March 19, which is St. Joseph’s Day and Father’s Day in Spain. This fire ritual consumes a whole year of work — a whole year of dreams.

At 10:00 pm the children’s fallas are set to the torch, amid music and fireworks. At midnight, Valencia astonishes the entire world each year by burning its street monuments to ashes, ending with the biggest fallas whose budgets are in the range of many thousands of euros.

We decided to avoid the huge crowds downtown and took part in the cremà in our local neighbourhood. The small fires there were big enough for me! I was gobsmacked to see the tiniest of children learning how to set off firecrackers. But Vicky told us that the parents teach them young how to handle them safely. After the children’s falla had burned down, the children held hands and dance in a circle around the embers to traditional music. Oh yes, there are firefighters and hoses present at every burning to make sure nothing goes awry.

The question everyone asks is why burn statues that cost so much to make in time, energy and money?

As one blog put it: “This is simply yet another traditional quirk of the Valencians, channelling their craftsmanship into an event of international status; people who are in love with aesthetics, beauty, fireworks and music; people who outdo the ancient Greeks and Romans in pageantry; people who see the ironic side of life through their ninots yet allow the flames to consume them in a homage to spring.”

I liken it to the intricate and beautiful sand mandalas that Buddhist monks work on painstakingly for long periods of time only to destroy them in the end, revealing that everything is impermanent.

The day after the burning Valencians wake up to a new morning and are already starting to think about the fallas they will build the next spring. It’s spring renewal unlike any I’ve ever seen.

 

 

Balcony love…

Valencia in the spring was full of wonders. There were just so many visual delights and so much that I wanted to preserve with my camera.

Now that I’m back from my Spanish odyssey, and as I go through my images, I notice a preoccupation with certain subjects — balconies being one of them.

It seems I was always looking up to appreciate elegant and intricate balcony design, which also has a very functional use.

The hot and sunny Mediterranean climate is perfectly suited to balconies from where residents can enjoy their own outdoor space, or simply watch the world go by on bustling streets below.

I’m drawn to the symmetry and repetition of multiple similar balconies, as well as the opportunities they provide for individual self-expression.

Here are just a few examples.

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The Thalia Theatre

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Some favourite places in New York City…

In my previous post, I talked about and pictured a favourite building in New York — the Flatiron Building.

Here are a few other favourite places. On this trip, the rain prevented me from going to Central Park — the best park in the world in my opinion —  but I’ve made images there on at least two other occasions.

Union Square Park, which is down around 14th street, was designed by Frederick Olmsted and Calvert Vaux, the same two who designed Central Park. You can see the same design philosophy at work on a much smaller scale. I find it fascinating to read about  how they so consciously used trees and plants, paths, tunnels, bridges, berms and ledges, and water features to affect people’s experience of a park.

Grand Central Terminal is another place I’ve photographed before — but I keep going back there because there’s so many beautiful details to shoot and so many ways to shoot it. And this time I was there on Thanksgiving Day, one of the busiest travel days of the year, so it was bursting at the seams with people. It’s an incomparable place to people-watch. I could do it for hours. Actually, I think I have.

I’ve been very fortunate to have had some exceptional meals in New York — some mind-blowingly amazing meals in fact. The most unbelievable ever was at Eleven Madison Park, where we went to celebrate my mother’s 80th birthday some years back. My sister and I thought such a milestone birthday was deserving of a special meal — and I’m sure it will be the only Michelin three-star restaurant I will ever eat at in my life, so I treasure the memory and the event it marked.

Another great meal was at Mario Batali’s Casa Mono on one of my last trips, which was so busy that we could only get a reservation at 10:00 pm. But so worth the wait. I didn’t eat there this year, but I did go back to take a picture of the place, which is in Gramercy Park, a favourite neighbourhood to walk around in.

Of course, I have many more favourite places, including the Metropolitan Opera — where this year I had the good fortune to see world-famous soprano Anna Netrebko perform in Manon Lescaut. Sadly, I did not get a good picture of that amazing place and experience. It will have to live on in my mind only.

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My friend, the Flatiron…

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I found myself agape, admiring a skyscraper — the Flatiron building, to be particular, ploughing up through the traffic of Broadway and Fifth Avenue in the afternoon light.

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I’ve written about it before and I’ve shot it before. But there I was again. Drawn like a magnet to the Flatiron Building in New York City. It was a sunny day this time and the particular angle of the sun behind the building made it a challenge to capture.

I was a bit blinded by the light, actually. And I didn’t have a tripod or any filters either to help the situation technically. Still, I like how this image turned out. It captures a feeling I have for the building.

Like many innovative buildings, the Flatiron was not universally well received.  Architectural Record thought it was awkward, and criticized the large number of windows (the horror!). The New York Times called it a “monstrosity,” The New York Tribune describing it as a “stingy piece of pie,” the Municipal Journal & Public Works called it “New York’s latest freak in the shape of sky scrapers” and the Municipal Art Society went as far to say it was “unfit to be in the Center of the City.” But popular sentiment eventually won over the critics and now this is one of the most beloved buildings in the city.

I am by no means alone in my fascination with the Flatiron. This building has been the focus of esteemed photographers like Berenice Abbott, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen and it has been painted by Albert Gleizes, Paul Cornoyer and other American artists. It has appeared in the writings of O’Henry and scores of television shows and motion pictures.  Even before its completion in the early 1900s the Flatiron Building was one of the most recognizable and most reproduced architectural images in the United States.

It was so good to be back to hang out with the Flatiron, and I know this good friend will be waiting for me to enjoy on my next trip to New York.

 

 

Being taken by New York in black and white…

 

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Shawna Lemay wrote recently in her rich gift of a blog, Transactions with Beauty: “There is a point one reaches in one’s creative endeavors that … you find yourself covering familiar ground, repeating, circling back to familiar themes and concerns.”

I had just returned from New York City and I was going through my images. I definitely recognized myself in those words. Yes, that is me, for sure.

I’ve gone to New York City three times now since 2013 with more on my agenda than seeing the sights and experiencing some of the best music and art a city can offer. (Which I love to do, by the way.)

But I also strive to come back with images — not just snapshots — that encapsulate what thrills me about New York. And I do find myself considering the same subjects and themes over and over. (See my previous posts — I did a 7 part series in 2013.)

When I look at my gallery called New York City in Black and White, which contains images from more than one trip, I see that I am drawn to arches, windows, reflections, symmetrical and geometrical architectural shapes, buskers, young lovers, and silhouettes and shadows, just as a few examples. I am also fascinated by the contrasts between old and new and the built and natural environment.

(And whatever else I’m doing, I have to find time to shoot the Flatiron Building, my all-time favourite building. In a previous post, I talk about my obsession with it.)

But even as I tend to return to the same preoccupations with my photography, either consciously or unconsciously, I find that something has changed in the way I see. More and more I am struck by a “flash of perception” that hits me fast and furiously and it is a distinct frisson of excitement that compels me to turn my camera in a certain direction. Something I see feels fresh and new to me. Most of my very favourite images have come about this way.

I’ve noticed too that my memories associated with where I was and how I was feeling when I made these photos are much sharper and longer lasting than when I was merely documenting a scene, or even recording a nice memory. The image can bring me right back to the time it was taken with all the details intact.

I know that less and less I want my photography to be about looking at the world and saying to myself: Ah, that’s interesting or beautiful, I should take a picture of that.

It is the times when I am “taken by a picture” — even if I don’t quite know why — which always mean the most to me.

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A few days in Prince Edward County…

I’m taking a video course this summer (Make Films with Xanthe Berkeley), so in an effort to improve my skills, I put together a three-minute video. I wanted to capture a recent visit to Prince Edward County, Ontario, Canada (PEC) for a family getaway in moving pictures as well as stills this time.

I’m a big fan of the County as locals call it, which is really a beautiful island, and I adore islands, as many of you know. In past summers, we’ve sailed around it, using Waupoos Marina as our base.

But PEC is also an up-and-coming Ontario wine region, which is producing award-winning wines and becoming a preferred destination for wine lovers and foodies from the nearby big urban centres of Toronto and Ottawa. However, even with its success and newfound popularity, it hasn’t lost its “realness,” its friendliness or its old-fashioned charm.

You can still find boxes by the side of the road where you can leave your money for produce on the honour system.

In wineries throughout the county, you can still meet with the actual owners/winemakers who are more than pleased to pour their wine for you and share their passion for what they make and how they make it.

Prince Edward County is also home to three of the best beaches in Canada. As youngsters my sister and I spent many a happy day at Sandbanks and we decided to go back for another visit, this time with cameras. It did not disappoint.

On top of that, there’s lots of great restaurants and places for food lovers to satisfy all their desires. We were only there for a couple of days but I still couldn’t cram all the places we went to in this short little video. I may have to do another post…

A few days in wine country — Prince Edward County, Ontario from Sherry Galey on Vimeo.