A day in Londontown

What’s the true definition of friendship, you ask? It’s when you go to Londontown with friends to see Martha Beck talk at Earls Court, and when everyone in the room has had their book signed, your mate Sas (unbeknown to you) siddles up to Martha and has a wee little chat, which may have included the words ‘my friend Sus wrote a book‘ while giving her a copy. And the very lovely Martha Beck says: ‘ooh good, I needed something to read on the plane to Africa.’

THAT, friends, is true friendship.

The rug seller’s portrait

I visited Marrakesh for the first time back in July 2010. With hindsight it was probably a mistake that four very pale-skinned women hit Morocco in the summer season, but it was a lovely long weekend filled with souk shopping, Polaroid-snapping and a very rigorous hammam.

Knowing Marrakesh was the ultimate bohemian shopping destination, I had a vintage wedding blanket at the top of my wish list. And perhaps other more canny shoppers would have researched the best places to procur such an item, but i went with a see-what-happens plan of action. And as it turned out, I found my blanket on the very first day.

We found ourselves in a small square just off the rabbit warren of the souks, and ambled over to the rug stall to check out the blankets. The (tall, young, easy-on-the-eye) rug seller spoke pretty good English so we all chatted as he brought out the vintage blankets from the back of the shop and lay them out on the floor for me. I chose the one i liked, did a bit of good-natured haggling and won my prize for a fair price. And because my SX-70 was burning a hole in my bag, I asked if I could take Abdul’s portrait for my book.

Back then I was madly shooting Polaroids for both books wherever I went, not knowing which book they’d end up in but wanting to catch every evocative moment I could. We were planning to have an extensive portrait section in Instant Love, and I knew a portrait of our genial rug seller would — if you’ll pardon the cliche — rock the casbah. So I took a couple of shots before letting his friend take a Polaroid of all of us. I let Abdul keep that one.

Fast forward to last week. Jen, Amanda and I were enjoying an hour to ourselves while our Polaroid ladies explored the souks on their own. We found ourselves back in the little square, and after buying honey soap in the spices shop I remembered from last time (and chatting to some tourists about our cameras — of course) we turned around and there was Abdul.

I guess it was easy to spot me with my magic camera in my hands but I was still surprised that he remembered me. After a few minutes of me exclaiming ‘ohmygod, you’re in the book! we made it happen!’ and introducing him to my fellow authors he invited us to tea in his shop — feeling a wee bit flustered I graciously turned him down as we were already headed to le Cafe des Epices. Twenty minutes later Abdul appeared at the cafe and sheepishly asked if I’d be back tomorrow. I explained we were off to Essaouira the next day, and then teaching after that but I said I’d try to return on Saturday with the book.

As it turned out there wasn’t time to go back to the medina, but luckily Briana was staying on for a few days and very kindly offered to take my copy of the book to Abdul. She even snapped a photo for us:

Doesn’t he look happy? Totally made my year.

And that, my friends, is the story of the rug seller’s portrait. I’d tell you which page his portrait is on but my only copy now lives in Marrakesh, so I can’t look it up. ;)

Playing with the impossible

The biggest challenge of our week in Morocco wasn’t the temperature (though it was really cold at night), the culture (despite the overzealous souk sellers) or the fact that it was our first time leading a retreat together (Jen and Amanda felt like friends I’d known forever). No, the biggest challenge was getting to grips with the instant film we were using.

We’d all rocked up with packets of Impossible film in our suitcases and the theme of the week quickly became How to Get the Best Out of the New Film. I’ve been eking out my remaining stash of original Polaroid film, not wanting to face the fact that my beloved film was no more, so I knew our retreat would be my chance to finally face reality and learn how to shoot with the new film. And learn I did…

Polaroid had had decades to perfect their integral film, so to expect the Impossible Project to have done the same in only two years is crazy. But they have achieved so much in such a short space of time. As many of the key chemicals used in the original Polaroid film are no longer manufactured, TIP has had to create their own instant film from scratch.

Every new batch of film is a leap forward from the last and I’m particularly impressed with how the Silver Shade films are progressing. I learned how to shoot on black & white film at college and have returned home excited to play with more of this film (PX600 and PX100). Without the emotional shorthand of colour to rely on, you’re left searching for light & shade and line & shape — I found the film worked best with strong compositions and punchy light.

Instant film is a physical, temperamental entity that requires patience and cunning to get it to do your bidding. The emulsion may crack (as you can see in the photo above). The photos need warmth to develop (cue 13 women warming their photos under their arms) and are so sensitive to light they must be shielded when they first exit the camera (the Impossible’s own darkslides worked best for me).

I shot this last photo in Le Cafe des Epices, the spot where all the tourists hangout, right in the middle of the medina. This isn’t the greatest shot in the world, but i love how the film really soaked up the sunshine, just like we were. The middle-aged couple sitting at the next table asked about my camera, intrigued that we were still able to find film for it (this wasn’t the first or last conversation I’d have about my camera that week — carrying an SX-70 is like walking around with a really cute show dog that everyone wants to stop and pet)

Moments later Abdul, the young and handsome rug seller, found me and asked if I’d be back the next day. But I’ll tell you his story tomorrow…