Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Graveyard of the Atlantic

Summer came at last to the South West of England, right at the end of September for 6 days. Fortunately it coincided with the autumn equinox which brought the best spring-tide of the year, and even more fortunately I had some time to make the most of it. I saw very little of the sun as I spent my time in achingly cramped positions, in small caves for hours on end, suffering for my art! I’ve had the title of my big show in North Carolina on my mind ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’ a title both North Devon & Cornwall share with the coast of North Carolina. I was hoping to find some of the debris caused by the tail end of the last couple of hurricanes come tropical storms that came out of the west Atlantic, causing so much destruction and flooding on the NC coast and in Bideford’s twin town of Manteo on Roanoke Island where my show will be. A couple of very productive days were spent firstly at Combe Martin and Watermouth, then at Bedruthan Steps near Padstow.

To give my blog readers a taste of what’s coming and an insight into my practice I’ll describe how I took the frames which make the image above. This is just a quick thumbnail image, automatically made from very small copies of the originals, so that I can see, visually, that spending time on the photograph is worthwhile.

I was unfamiliar with Bedruthan so I took a while walking up, down and around the beach, or beaches, as there are many separated by headlands of jutting out rock. I was racing around because I wasn’t sure how long I would have at before I would be cut off by the tide and I wanted to get as much raw material in that time as I could. The cave would have been easy to get into if I’d been a 5 year old boy, so I needed to crouch right down and find a patch of wet sand to sit on near to the back. The thing that had really attracted me to this miniature world was the wall of frayed ropes and fishing net hung like a veil from a crack in the side of the cave. This had to feature prominently in my image and so I shifted around with my camera until I found the best composition taking into account rope wall, entrance shape, reflection of light etc. Taking no chances I packed a bigger kitbag than usual with 2 cameras and a couple of lenses. I ought to confess that I need to get my prime camera fixed as it has an auto-focus problem and there’s a speck of dust in the lens. So it was a case of going ‘old school’ literally manually focusing an old, but good quality, fixed focus 50mm f1.4 lens from my old Olympus SLR. That ought not to be difficult, but it was because there’s no ‘split-screen’ focusing on a DSLR and I couldn’t open and closed the aperture automatically, so it all had to be done, painstakingly, manually. I have to use the screen, rather than the viewfinder here, because it's so dark so my process each time my camera angle is adjusted is: open aperture manually on the lens, make shutter speed faster so that the image on the screen isn't way too bright, focus lens ring, close aperture down by 4 stops, slow shutter speed back down to where it was, fire the cable released shutter. Exposure was the same, labour, intensive manual process. With the camera firmly fixed to a tripod every frame was shot in RAW, using a cable release, with iso at it’s lowest (100), aperture closed down to f11, shutter speed was sometimes as slow as 8 seconds and many of the views, pieces from the whole, from this fixed point camera had to be shot many times with different exposure, points of focus and with various fingers, thumb and palm of the hand used to prevent flare coming into the lens from the light source directly in front of me; the mouth of the cave. I started photographing at 11:46am and at 12:08 had completed the 66 separate frames which will, fingers crossed, eventually make up one image. I had been intensely taking photographs for 22 minutes, add on the time it took to get into the hole, find the best place to set up my tripod, unpack the bag etc, I had been cramped inside for a good half hour and I could really feel my legs and the brightness of the sun when I emerged afterwards.
a contact sheet of all 66 images shot in 'Rope Wall' cave
Finding the subject matter and shooting the frames is just the start of a very long process. Each RAW file was then adjusted and saved as a HQ jpeg. A copy of these files was saved into a new folder and each of these was shrunk in dimension by 25% and saved as a lower quality jpeg. The image at the top was automatically generated through ‘photomerge’ in Photoshop CS5 from a selection of the frames that I shot to give me a thumbnail, a suggestion, of what the final image might look like. If I like what I have at this stage, and I do, I’ll take it on to a finished image; but this will take a good day’s work on the computer which can be saved for a cold, wet, winter day. It will, however give me a digital file that can be printed high quality to make an image as big as 2 metres high.