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Saturday, March 31, 2018

Finding your Voice: Ian M. Walker

Have you ever wondered about narrating an audiobook? 
If you read my 2012 blog about my experience as an author-narrator you already know why authors can be the worst narrators of our own books! And why choosing the right narrator is so important. The moment I heard Ian's submission for Someone To Look Up To, I knew I'd found the voice of Sirius and, since publication three weeks ago, listeners are agreeing with me. So who is the man behind Walker's Words? And what's the inside story on being a Voice?

Ian M. Walker is a Brit living in Los Angeles who broke the shackles of many years in the corporate I.T. world to follow a more creative dream. He is known for 5* audiobook narration in his 'deep, gravelly voice'. He has an upcoming part in a stop-motion film, upcoming animation narration, completed Orcish feast voices and ambience for an upcoming role-playing game by World Tree Studios. 

As Ian is a Voice, he decided to answer my questions live for you, on video, so you could see him working and so he could expand on his answers. You can enjoy the full version of Ian's interview here and I can only say that I was moved to tears by the end of it - good tears.

 Welcome to my blog, Ian! 

Tell me a bit about yourself - where do you live and what do you do when you’re not recording a book?
Originally from England, I live in Los Angeles, CA. I’ve actually now been over here for longer than I lived in the country of my birth! When not recording I’m usually playing with my dog, Bailey, reading, swimming, playing a computer game or visiting friends.

Ian and his Catahoula Leopard Dog (with that beautiful coat!) x pitbull, Bailey in McArthur park
Can you give me a brief picture of your personal journey as a Voice Actor?
After a long career in I.T. and one too many lay-offs, I started to put serious thought into what I actually wanted to do when I grow up. I.T. had been good to me but it never fulfilled me. I did some traveling and during that time, I came across an ad for a voice assessment. I went along, heard myself recorded in a professional booth for the first time and a fire was lit in my belly. I just completed my fourth complete audiobook and I’m working on the fifth. I may also be voicing Einstein the English Elephant in an independent stop-motion film. Since elephants have always been my favourite animal, that would be fun. I definitely intend to do some voice work for gaming.

How do you prepare for recording an audiobook?
Initially, I read the book. I try to just enjoy it as a reader would but, of course, I’m already starting to think of the voices. I’ll speak with the author in case they have input or I need to clarify anything such as words, accents, etc. When it comes time to record, it varies. Sometimes, the voice(s) will just come to me. With others, I may try a few out and see which I prefer. If there are a great many voices I’ll usually record snippets which I may refer back to.

Do you network with other Voice Actors? Are there any sites you’d recommend?
Absolutely! I have quite a few peers I’m connected with via social media. There are a great many voice groups out there so I’d rather not favour any single one. One thing I would mention, though, is that I’ve always found these groups and my peers to be very helpful. I heard early on that, unlike other areas of the entertainment industry, voice is less cut-throat and more about lifting one another up. So far, I’ve found this to be the case.

How can an author help the Voice Actor/ Producer of his/her book?
Hmm, an interesting question. Though I don’t have a great deal of personal experience yet, from what I’ve read some authors can be quite hands-on whilst others leave it to the Narrator. Usually, though, this IS a partnership so there ought to be some discussion. Steering clear of too much description of tone/flavor would be helpful as it isn’t always easy to understand exactly what the author was going for. One thing which would be nice, though it is likely not feasible, is if the author could consider, when writing, just how long a sentence they are writing (without any pauses) and how that might affect the poor narrator as they attempt to voice it without expiring. 😉
Hahaha. Guilty as charged!

 Are there ways in which authors can hinder or even spoil the Voice Actor’s recording of a book?
Micro-management. Changing their minds causing many re-records.
If you could wave a magic wand and change something about your career what would it be?
I’d be a little further along. More established. More known. Because, hopefully, such a position lessens the bane of all creative types – the weakening of self-confidence/belief in oneself.
That is exactly how I feel! You say more about this in the video and I can identify with all of it!

Tell me about your working day. Do you work to a routine? Do you use a recording studio? Endless cups of coffee or tea?
I have an audio booth I created out of a large (5' x 5' x 8') closet. It has walls treated with Auralex acoustic tiles, thick carpet, etc. Despite being from England, I never had the endless cups of tea habit and now, I rarely drink it or coffee. I’m always drinking water. I always have, thankfully. 

I always warm up. First, I’ll do some singing along to music as I’m checking emails and what not, then I’ll follow the routine of a friend and peer, Amy Walker (no relation) immediately prior to any recording session. Try the routine yourself!

Who or what has been the greatest help to you as a Voice Actor?The helpful people of the forum for the free software I mainly use (Audacity) and of the ACX Facebook group.
What has been the hardest thing for you to overcome in becoming a Voice Actor?
Lack of self-confidence. This hit me hard over the past year or so due to some personal challenges/events which had nothing to do with my voice work.

If you could pick one character in one of your audiobooks, to spend some time with, who would it be and why?
I can’t give just one, it has to be two. 😊 First of all, Sirius from Someone To Look Up To by an author you may know because I love dogs and I feel I got to know him so well so I’d love to meet him. Secondly, Gon from The Oldest Living Vampire series by Joseph Duncan because - come on! - he is 30,000 years old! How fascinating that would be.

Tell me about your latest audiobook and why we should all buy it?
My first three books are all of a supernatural bent. This is fine for me as my favourite genres are sci-fi and horror. Of course, this isn’t a realm all readers enjoy. Due to this, plus having to overcome the aforementioned challenges to finish this book, Someone To Look Up To is something I’m going to cherish dearly. It is a book which appeals universally and one which became a crucible of sorts for me. 

Beyond my very personal reasons, it truly is wonderfully written. There were times I would come out of the booth, interact with my own dog, Bailey and I’d find myself looking at her differently, even asking her if she was doing what I had just read about. I had to keep on reminding myself that this was a book of fiction, not fact! It takes one into the psyche and thoughts of a dog so well. 😊

Bailey in her famous pink raincoat (to misquote Leonard Cohen). Ian was fed up of people assuming that Bailey was male so she always wears pink.

Thank you, Ian. Your narration brought my book alive for me and I loved every moment. Readers can listen to Ian reading Chapter 2 of the audiobook here and judge for themselves how Ian 'became the voice of Sirius, and made Sirius and the others feel so real'. (5* review)

What are you working on next?I have already started on the next in the Oldest Living Vampire series. After that, though, I’m going to try to spread my wings a little. I’d like to go for some computer game or commercial work and perhaps one or two non-fiction audiobooks.

Where can we find you?
The easiest way is via my website,  as it has links to all of my social media. 

You can buy Someone To Look Up To audiobook FREE to new audible members from
Amazon (US) Amazon (UK) iTunes: The book is available from bookstores

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

NEW Books! GOODREADS Giveaways for US Readers

100 COPIES to be won AHEAD of Publication Day!

The antidote to Valentine's Day if you like your reading sharp, not sickly sweet. 

Goodreads Book Giveaway

With Double Blade by Jean Gill

With Double Blade

by Jean Gill

Giveaway ends February 12, 2018.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Goodreads kindle giveaways are US only but if you live elsewhere - or if you're not lucky in the giveaway there's a **SPECIAL PRE-ORDER 0.99** (Publication price 3.99)

You CAN read kindles on other ereaders. Get the FREE APP from amazon and follow these instructions. If you use a different amazon, search for 'kindle app' on your local one.

'Jean Gill’s spiky humour makes you feel as if she’s caught you on barbed wire and yet makes you smile about it'– Mike Sharpe, Haverfordwest Journalist 
Strong, fresh, vivid poems from award-winning author Jean Gill, on an astounding range of subjects including adultery, AIDS and the Mexican Earthquake. If you crossed Wendy Cope’s work with Sylvia Plath’s, Jean Gill’s poetry might be the result.

‘You’re starting to smother me, darling,
 you’re faded and boring, my dear.
 It’s my turn to play with another
 and your turn alone with your fear.’ 
Divided into two parts, this new edition includes the stories behind the poetry, some personal and some about world events; always surprising.
'Moving and varied '– Dorothy Tutin
'Jean Gill brings off the rare feat of looking life squarely in the eye without descending into dreary cynicism.' – HS Milford Haven, Journalist
'The author is particularly gifted with poetry.' The Wishing Shelf Award

                                    With Double Blade
                                              Add With Double Blade to your goodreads shelf

Want to pre-order now? At SPECIAL 99c/99p price?

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Your chance to win a copy of the historical novel everybody's talking about. Like #GOT with real history! 100 copies!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Song Hereafter by Jean Gill

Song Hereafter

by Jean Gill

Giveaway ends February 17, 2018.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Thrilling conclusion to an award-winning epic series. Can be read as a stand-alone.

Song Hereafter: 1153: Hispania and the Isles of Albion (The Troubadours Quartet Book 4)
Add Song Hereafter to your goodreads shelf

Amazon 5* review 
"I looked forward to this publication knowing it was the last book in a wonderful series and then put off actually reading it. I so loved the characters that I couldn't bear for it to end. And then I realized that enough time had passed and I could start over with the first book to live it all again. I've never been so pleased with the final chapter in any series as this. The story is so engaging, one almost doesn’t realize the lessons in history, poetry, music and medicine are being taught. The relationships between characters are enchanting, intriguing, and sometimes frightening. And the dog! You will recognize your own special dog in this hero, no matter the size or breed. Bravo!"

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Monday, November 6, 2017

El Rey Lobo, the Wolf King of 12thC Murcia

During the 12th Century, there were two crusades which pitted Christian armies against Muslims and Jews in 'the Holy Land' and in continental Europe. However, it would be as naive to think that these faith communities were 'enemies' throughout the 12th Century as to think that Germany was an enemy to  the U.K. or to France throughout the 20th Century. Wars and political alliances have never been simple, and the true story of El Rey Lobo, the Wolf King, sheds light on real politics in 1153.  

Romantic 19th C painting of a Caliph and his escort, often used to depict El Rey Lobo but NOT of him
Not a fantasy invention but a real historical figure, the man nicknamed 'El Rey Lobo' in Spanish ('The Wolf King'), ruled the kingdom of Murcia from 1147, when he was twenty-three years old, until his death in 1172. He was crucial in the defence of the Christian kingdoms in the north of the Iberian Peninsula, against the Almohad Muslims in the south - and he was a Muslim. 

Typical of the complications in real history, his ancestors had converted to the Muslim faith, so he was described as 'muwallad', an Arabic term for 'of mixed background'. Some say his nickname came from the family name Lope, which was abandoned when his Christian forebears converted to Islam.

The Spanish Kingdoms in 1210
In 1153, Abu ʿAbd Allāh Muḥammad ibn Mardanīš (to give the Wolf King his full name) was the King of Valencia and Murcia. For the more romantically inclined, his wolf nickname could have arisen from stories such as his treatment of a relative, Yūsuf, who challenged his authority. Having won a battle against Yūsuf, El Rey Lobo threatened to gouge out his eyes unless he gave the order to surrender. Yūsuf refused and lost his right eye. El Rey Lobo then ordered Yūsuf's wife to surrender the castle or else watch her husband blinded. She refused and Yūsuf's other eye was removed. He was then imprisoned. Such was the mercy of the Wolf King. 

His kingdoms were sandwiched between the Christian realms of Barcelona and Aragon (both ruled by the Count of Barcelona, thanks to the marriage coup of the century) and the southern taifas of Al-Andalus (Muslim Spain). Relationships were amicable between El Rey Lobo and his Christian neighbours, with trade links and tolerance of mixed-faith communities. 

Tolerance did not mean equality and the laws favoured the faith group in power, whether in Muslim Murcia or Christian Aragon. Jews held positions of high status in both Muslim and Christian kingdoms but were expected to keep to their own community for accommodation, social occasions and - a big cultural division - eating.

The medieval arms of Aragon showing a moor's head in the lower left quadrant
One example of a Christian ruler's laws: 'I likewise grant to all settlers this prerogative... whether Christian, Moor or Jew, free or servile, [they] should come in safety' 

[In a court case] the Christian should swear on the cross and the Jew on the Torah. And if the Jew or Christian does not want to swear, he should lose the case. 
(from The Code of Cuença, late 12th Century)

Relationships were not amicable between El Rey Lobo and his fanatical southern neighbours, the Almohad Muslims. These invaders brought extremist views with them from North Africa and, even more than they hated Christians, they hated their fellow-Muslims. They hated the Almoravids, Muslims who'd been lords of Al-Andalus for centuries until the Almohads arrived. And they hated those like El Rey Lobo, of 'mixed' background.

In short, Muslims who'd been settled a long time on the Iberian Peninsula, and who now governed peaceful mixed-faith communities, betrayed their own faith, from the Almohad point of view, and were worse than Christians. 

There was no doubt that the Almohads' conquest of southern Spain and advance northwards was El Rey Lobo's biggest threat. An alliance with his northern, Christian neighbours was in both their interests. How was that alliance secured? Did Ramon Berengeur IV of Barcelona and Aragon perhaps take a party of his men to El Rey Lobo's stronghold of Monteagudo? What did Berengeur offer to gain Murcia's defence of his southern border? 

El Rey Lobo's Castle of Monteagudo with the more modern addition of a statue of Christ
That meeting is the starting-point for my historical novel 'Song Hereafter', in the court of El Rey Lobo, where Ramon Berengeur and his two commanders seek an alliance with Murcia. One of those commanders is Malik, the Muslim from Zaragoza, and one is his friend, the Christian warrior and troubadour, Dragonetz los Pros, fictional hero of The Troubadours Quartet.

Song Hereafter
1153 in Hispania and the Isles of Albion
Chapter 1

'Usually when El Rey Lobo bared his teeth, everyone in his line of sight wondered whether to do likewise and call it smiling, or to wait and pray for invisibility. Men had been killed for doing either. He had earned his nickname ‘the Wolf King’. The men in front of the king today were not, however, his courtiers but his Christian neighbours of Barcelone: Ramon Berenguer and two of his commanders. They were not currying favour but seeking an alliance.
Ramon was sombre. ‘Without the King of Murcia, we would have the Almohads in our gardens. I hear they make a virtue of killing.’
‘And of dying, too. In order to ‘purge’ this land.’ the king replied. At the mention of the Almohads, El Rey Lobo’s face darkened beneath his turban, and his mouth pursed as if accustomed to spit at the name. His swarthy features, oiled beard and flowing robes gave no sign of his Christian ancestry and it had been many generations since his family had converted to the Muslim faith of their overlords.
 He continued, ‘They will not rest until all our people are dead. All of our faith who have made this country our home for generations. We have ‘sinned’, we are ‘unbelievers’ and the penalty is death for me, for our wives, for our children, for men like your commander Malik. They will make slaves of Jews and Christians but us, they will kill.
They are superstitious barbarians from the hills of Africa! They shave their heads before battle. What pious man would do such a thing? And their black slaves thump on great drums the size of cartwheels. When you hear the beat of their war-drums, you hear your own death. This is what my men must face! Their own hearts beating in fear!’
Dragonetz listened intently to his Liege and the Wolf King, sifting courtesies from nuggets of information. They were all waiting for the king’s terms.
El Rey Lobo dismissed the Almohads with a defiant gesture and began the bargaining. ‘The Almohads are not causing me a problem today. If you want to solve the problems I have today, go and find me a mintmaster and an expert in siege warfare.’ He paused for thought, then held up a third finger. ‘And somebody who will repair a paper mill. These are the problems that take up a king’s time! When you take away these headaches, we can talk about protecting boundaries and Almohads!’

To continue reading, for more details and buy links for Song Hereafter (the last book in the award-winning Troubadours Quartet) please visit my website . Book 1 Song at Dawn is on promotion at 99c / 99p if you wish to start this epic saga at the beginning but Song Hereafter can be read as a standalone.

Further Reading
Medieval Iberia, Readings from Christian, Jewish and Muslim sources, edited by Olivia Remie Constable
Photo credits
Map of the Spanish Kingdoms, courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin. Castle of Monteagudo By SergioHC (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 es (], via Wikimedia Commons
Arms of Aragon, the Aljaferia, Zaragoza - Jean Gill
Song Hereafter - cover design Jessica Bell
Painting by Theodore Chaserieu of Caliph Ali Ben-Hamet, public domain

Friday, June 30, 2017

A picture paints a thousand … dollars

The 13th Sign copyrighted Publisher logo
As writers, we want images for our book covers, blogs, adverts and tweets. It is so easy to break the law if I find the perfect picture online. All I have to do is right-click, save it and use it. Simple! As simple as picking up sweets in a shop and pocketing them. You probably wouldn’t do the latter because a) it’s stealing and b) if you get caught, you don’t just pay the price of the sweets. The same applies to using images without permission and there are some horror stories doing the rounds about the price of being caught.

I’m a writer and a photographer, with a stock portfolio of 3,500 photos at istockphoto and Getty Images. When you buy a stock image, you pay for a license to use it and have the security of knowing you are not breaking any laws. The photographer remains the copyright holder and can earn a living through multiple small sales. If you use any photo without payment (if required) or permission, you are stealing from the photographer.

You would be surprised at which photos sell best. How much do you think each of these photos has earned for me?

Untidy Wardrobe istockphoto file link

The untidy wardrobe has earned $400 and the swamp hag, which involved a gutsy paid model, complicated lighting and a unique (!) location - $20. The wardrobe photo is successful and the swamp hag is not (though of course I love it). If somebody saw the wardrobe and thought, ‘That’s just an ordinary photo; why shouldn’t I use it – and I’ll pay if I get caught,’ I’d lose my income.
All this is a bit heavy when all you want is a little picture for your blog?

You have three legal options. 

1) You could use a photo that is ‘free to use without restriction’ often stated to be ‘under creative commons license’. Here are two of the many sites that offer photos free, even for commercial use.

Pixabay is a gateway to shutterstock and many of the paid stock libraries offer freebies as a taster. Help yourself!
The New York Library is also one of many sites offering free photos. Be careful. Some ‘free sites’ steal photos. You could be in trouble if you use images these sites should not be offering.

A creative commons license does NOT automatically mean that you can do anything you like with a photo. You need to read the terms of each photo, which might limit the use or require credit in a given manner.

2) You can pay for Royalty Free stock photos. Royalty Free does NOT mean free. It means you can use the photo in advertising (e.g. book jackets) and combine it with other images in any way you want. You can Photoshop it to death. Check the license use if you have a bestselling print run – you might need an extended license (usually at about 500,000 copies).

Credit your source where possible and, if you can, the photographer by name. These are your creative colleagues and, if you use one of my photos, let me know and I will publicise the fact! Photographers are your marketing friends!

3) The third option is to use your own (or a friend’s) photos. You avoid all the legal problems that way, right? Wrong. 

Photos that are fine for personal use might be illegal if used commercially and it is your responsibility as photographer (and publisher) to obey the law. Your human subjects have rights so you should have permission from them before using their photo as e.g. a book jacket. Some buildings are copyright protected so you could be sued for using a photo of e.g. the Eiffel Tower at night, without permission.

I mentioned ‘Royalty Free’ photos. Every human subject in my photos has signed a Model Release permitting sale of their photos. There are no brand names, logos or copyright places. As a photographer, you could be sued over any of these issues.

The exception is when you use or sell your photos as ‘Editorial’. This is photo-journalism; travel, news or street photography where you do not always have model permission. Editorial photos can only be used in a reporting context and cannot be changed (i.e. Photoshopped or cropped in a way that changes the context). Laws vary by country but, for instance, even for Editorial, my companies do not allow photos of one child unless model released; several children or a child with at least one adult are acceptable.

If these were your photos, which of these could you legally use for a book cover?

Lyon Old Quarter istockphoto file link

Collioure Harbour istockphoto file link

Answer: all of them require Model Releases or can only be sold for Editorial use. This means that you could use them for a non-fiction (e.g. travel) book but if anybody can be recognised, it’s always safer to have permission from the subject. Number 2 (man hiking) does have a Model Release so is for sale Royalty Free. 

Because we photographers are lovely people, this photo (Romance in Paris) is a gift to you from me, free to use without restriction. Credit is always appreciated and if you let me know of any use, I will publicise that – I love seeing my photos ‘in the wild.’ Incidentally, photographers still own copyright to a photo even if there is no name or watermark on it, or embedded identifying data. Those are mere reminders to viewers that the photo is copyright – they don’t change its status.

If you’re not sure it’s OK then it probably isn’t, so unless you’re willing to go to court, don’t take risks. The main rule is to respect others’ copyright as much as your own and to appreciate that a photographer’s subjects (human and property) have rights too. Only use photos you have permission to use, in the way that you are using them.

I am NOT a lawyer so the opinions given here are based on my experience as a photographer, author and publisher.

You can see my stock portfolio here 

You can see my fine art photo galleries here

First published in 2016 in ALLLi's Self-Publishing Advice Centre 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

What kind of photographer are you?

Athabasca Glacier, Canadian Rockies, twilight

In my ongoing search for what sort of photographer I am and how to improve, I've had another professional portfolio assessment, this time from Getty Images. Although focused on stock photography, the comments apply more widely.

'Your best qualities as a photographer are working with real people, real situations and natural light.'

You have to love the stock world distinction between glamorous models and 'real people' :) and 'real situations' means acted-out situations that look real. As to natural light, I do enjoy fooling around in the attic studio with speedlights but, well, yes, 'let's go outside' is more me.

So I know how I could sell more photos as stock but who am I as a photographer, apart from stock? Sometimes knowing who you are NOT is very helpful and I've learned that photography is not just about liking the subject; it's about YOUR personality and lifestyle. So, who are you? Do you recognise who you are - or who you're not? Feel free to add some categories in your comments!

Landscape Photographer

You rise at dawn, spend the day complaining about harsh light and too much sunshine, then come alive again during the twilight blue hour and into the night. People exist to show scale as 'figures in a landscape' and are of no interest in themselves. In fact, people are irritating and you prefer there to be no people at all. You love slow exposures. Tripod, patience and natural light are your tools. You're willing and able to hike to impossible places, carrying 50kg of gear, to get The Shot.

Check out these photographers for great landscapes (and more):-
David duChemin
Chris Hepburn
Ryerson Clark
Paula Connelly

Athabasca Glacier, Canadian Rockies 6 am

Night Photographer

You come out at night, seeking places that no sensible person would go in the dark. Your partner is used to you sneaking out of bed, throwing on some clothes and going out. He/she has given up telling you it is dangerous. Whether in mean streets or trackless wilderness, you wear a cloak of invisibility that, along with your tripod, protects you from violent lowlife, human or animal. Your exposures are so slow they make people disappear and only the essential remains. You love stars. You might even specialise in astral photography.

La Belle Vie

Landscape and night photographer Tommy Dickson said 'I love turning night into day.'

Wildlife Photographer

You have inhuman patience. You could watch a patch of grass all day because three years ago a rare insect was seen on that very spot. You are a stalker. You know your subject intimately; how it behaves, where it goes; its mating habits. You have a David Attenborough commentary going on in your head at all times. You are happy to get close-up and personal with creatures that have big teeth. You think photo manipulation is cheating. You need a telephoto lens that costs the price of a house. You can lose the hiking/carrying and financial requirements if you opt for the macro version and shoot tiny wildlife, close-up.

Finalists in Wildife Photographers of the Year 2016
Check out the wildlife photos (and more) by Guenter Gueni

Street Photographer

You have no scruples about shooting strangers' private moments in public places. You shoot fast and have an eye for composing a candid scene, capturing relationships, emotions and urban settings. Usually, nobody notices you sneaking photos but every now and then a subject looks at camera with a smile, or shock or indignation. You shoot with an unobtrusive prime, probably 35mm, and you like black and white processing.

Apart from the iconic Cartier Bresson, one of the most famous street photographers is Vivian Maier, the nanny, who perfected invisibility but whose photos were never seen until after her death. Modesty? Lack of money for prints? Or scruples about the strangers whose lives she presents?


You care passionately about human rights, the planet and freedom of information. You want everyone to know what's happening in 'the rest of the world' so you risk police harassment, even rape or murder to portray the truth. You started as a travel photographer but you left your viewers' armchair comfort zone and you want to change their attitudes, startle them, stir them into action. You carry two cameras, no tripod, and you like shutter priority - it's not a question of shooting fast, but rather of how fast you shoot. If you slow down, it's to photograph the people who ought to be in the news, not the people who are. Home can be boring.

Two outstanding photojournalists:-
Anna Puig Rosado
Lynsey Addario

Food Photographer

You buy vast quantities of cookbooks and food magazines for the photos. Eating is a pleasure and you see food as beautiful. An aubergine is sexy and you can see what colours would set it off to perfection. Your house is full of unmatched plates, cutlery, serviettes and other objects bought as food props. Your partner is trained to ask whether you have photographed an item of food before he risks your wrath by eating it. Outdoors/indoors; tripod/free-range; macro/telephoto lens; your choice. As long as you see food items as glamour models, you're a food shooter.

French buche de Noel / Christmas log

My food photography inspiration includes Kelly Cline, whom I met online thanks to istock, and Helene Dujardin (what a great name for a French food shooter!)

Studio Photographer

You're a perfectionist and control freak. There must be no light or shadow in your image but what you allowed and intended. You can shoot beautiful studio portraits but, if you're honest, people are a little difficult to control and what you like best is a perfectly lit product shot. Your studio does not only have lights and every kind of modifier known, including mirrors and gobos; it has a beam and rail systems. You know how to name and use every piece of technology you have and what you most want is a smoke machine. Your assistant takes his/her shoes off at the impeccably clean threshold and whispers while you work.

You know who you are :)

Portrait Photographer

You're a people person. You can make someone relax in front of a camera; talk, laugh, fool around. People trust you and show you who they are, who they want to be and then magic happens. A portrait is an interactive threesome and, unlike food or landscapes, the subject has opinions and can hate the photo. Relationships can hurt and if you don't know what the other person wants, you can both be disappointed; if you work together, you can have more fun than ought to be allowed when working. Studio or natural light; tripod or not; still or movement; your favourite portrait lens (mine's an 85mm f1.4) Just steal somebody's soul!

Check out the portraits (and more) taken by Richard Clark

Architecture Photographer

You get excited at diagonal lines and architraves. You have the urge to lie on your back and shoot a cupola or skyscrapers. Stairwells induce pleasure overload. You are THE mathematical photographer, always aware of symmetry and straight horizontals. If a human being is in front of you, what you see are circles, verticals and curves. Sorry, did it say something? Your weapon of choice is a tilt-shift lens but you'll settle for a wide-angle that doesn't vignette.

Ceiling, The Palace of Joy, Zaragossa

Fashion Photographer

Designer labels and colour co-ordination make your shutter-finger twitch. You know about handbags. Only young, beautiful people exist and you can charm them into impossible poses to show off the real subjects - clothes and accessories. Star-jumps on rooftops and clinging to a cliff-face are only some of your ideas to display voile floating. You are inseparable from your favourite stylist and make-up artist.

Check out three-times-winner of Malta's Fashion Photographer of the Year Kurt Paris , and stunning work from Nils Kahle

Sports Photographer

You don't just support one team; you support twenty and you know the rules of every game, underwater, over hurdles and in the sky. You love action, motion, effort and achievement, winning and losing. If it moves, you shoot it. You like panning, tracking and motion blur. Forget the tripod and sell the house for a super-fast telephoto lens.

Check out Charlie Mann's work.

Of course there are overlaps and specialisms within specialisms; timelapse, underwater, lo-fi, baby-mugging and Pellier Noir are just some that came up when I googled photography categories!

My photographic adventures in 2016 have included organising and shooting professional models in Paris with some amazingly talented photographer friends; giving a ten minute presentation on my work at a Getty Images event; and testing my landscape skills in Zaragossa, Northumberland and the Canadian Rockies. Next weekend I'm attending a portrait workshop with Anna Puig Rosado who lives only 30 minutes from me and is not only internationally respected as a photojournalist but also a warm, friendly person and a great teacher. Watch this space!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Benedictines and bubbly; the Abbey of Saint-Hilaire

From the village of Limoux, not far from Carcassonne, the road to Saint-Hilaire and its Benedictine abbey, winds through woods and vineyards. In October, the mists and autumn colours add to the sense of time-travel as stone walls loom out of nowhere. This probably means you are lost, as we were, and that you should have taken the much shorter road. But then you would not have seen the cemetery on the hill, blooming with chrysanthemums in preparation for Toussaint, All Saints' Day, a national holiday when the French pay their respects to their dead.

The houses of the village encroaching on the abbey
The dead were all around me as I walked alone in the cloisters, the only visitor to an abbey founded in the early 9th century, the place where the body of Saint Hilaire was buried. It was mentioned at this time in a charter from Louis le Debonnaire, confirming donations from his father Charlemagne to Abbot Monellus of St-Hilaire. Early features remain in the later buildings and over time, the village has crept from outside the abbey walls to lean over the church itself.

My spirit guide
If you love medieval history, as I do, you will find treasure here. One of the fascinating characters who has turned up in my 12th century research is the Master of Cabestany but I never expected to find one of his masterpieces in this little village in the Languedoc. Made of one slab of white marble from the Pyrenees, this 'sarcophagus' is more accurately an altar piece because it is far too narrow and could not contain a corpse.
The current setting of the sarcophagus,
which was probably once the main altar, in the choir
Look at the people, gawking out their windows as the martyred Saint Sernin is beaten and torn apart by a goaded bull. He still manages to bless the two women who pray for him. Medieval brutality and Christianity in all its horrific richness.

Medieval rubber-neckers
A jongleur on a  tight-rope is distracted by the goings-on
The goaded bull and animals representing the bestial nature of the saint's oppressors

The identity of the Master of Cabestany is a mystery but his - or could it be their? or even her? work is famous throughout Catalonia, known for a certain style. I find it strange that the story progresses from right to left and, having written about left-handers, I wonder whether this was an accidental left-handed reversal of European writing convention? Or deliberate left-handed choice? Or could the Master have been from another culture, where writing flowed from right to left? It seems more than odd for an artist of this quality not to be aware of conventions. Do let me know your theories!

The story of Saint Sernin, reading from right to left (missing the two side panels),
from his evangelical preaching to his gory end

Mysteries and ghosts were all around me and I jumped when something brushed my leg - a cat who accompanied me with the air of a guide who knew all and wasn't telling. Many monks must have met unnatural ends here and when you climb the pulpit in the monks' refectory, you hear your words of warning ringing out around the hall. The protection of the Counts of Carcassonne was not enough to keep the abbey safe in the madness of the Albigensian Crusade that swept Languedoc in the 13th century and the monks were accused of heresy and merged with Les Frères Prêcheurs, the Dominicans.

The Benedictines emerged from their troubles and endowments from the local nobles continued. Naturally the Abbot's apartment benefited from such generosity and I was feeling cynical as I walked into a room that took my breath away. The textures and patterns on the ceiling reminded me of those in the Palace of Joy in Zaragossa but the addition of satirical portraits make it look like an illuminated manuscript, with which a scribe has had fun in the margins.

Abbot's chamber ceiling, with portraits
Detail of ceiling portraits

Heraldic shields on the walls below the decorated ceiling

My favourite motif - a heraldic beast with banner in its teeth

Patterned rows carved in wood

The walls bear the shields and names of all the Abbots and you can imagine how excited I felt at seeing the dates 1146 and 1154. I get the shivers every time I come across details of the period I write about.
The Abbots of 1146 and 1154

Perhaps the Abbey's biggest contribution to the world came in the 16th century. In 1531 the monks created what is claimed here to be the first sparkling wine in the world, the 'blanquette' for which Limoux is now known and I stood in the very 'cave' or cellar where a monk was surprised by bubbles forming in the corked bottles of white wine, as if they were undergoing a second fermentation...

The birth-place of sparkling wine: the wine cave in St-Hilaire

From its origin in this cellar, bubbly gained international popularity, leading 17th century Irish dramatist George Farquahar to comment, 'Brut sparkles like the lively remarks of a man of wit.'

The famous 'blanquette'
Photo: Agne27 at the English language Wikipedia

As I turned to go, I sensed a lighter presence than the black monks. A faded inscription above a door lintel gave me enough of a clue to work out who used to come here and why. Can you figure it out?

A long discussion with the Abbey curator confirmed my guess - this became the 'Ecole Publique des Filles' in the 19th century so the girls and small boys from the village came here for their lessons. The curator also clarified much else about St-Hilaire and played troubadour CDs for me. Now all I need to know is whether Estela and Dragonetz passed this way, and, if so, why.