Westward Ho! and Bideford Art Society Summer Exhibition at the Burton Art Gallery 2013

Some text to accompany my work which is the first ‘photographic’ work the Society has show in it’s 91 years:

Maidens Retreat, Marsland Mouth, North Devon

Maiden’s Retreat, Marsland Mouth

I was interested in finding historical and literal context for some of the landscape I was experiencing, and went in search of a cave Charles Kingsley had written about as a sheltering place for Rose Salterne, his startled naked maiden in the novel Westward Ho!

“In only one of these mouths is a landing for boats, made possible by a long sea-wall of rock, which protects it from the rollers of the Atlantic; and that mouth is Marsland, the abode of the White Witch, Lucy Passmore, You be safe enough here to-night, miss. My old man is snoring sound abed, and there’s no other soul ever sets foot here o’ nights, except it be the mermaids now and then. There’s the looking-glass; now go, and dip your head three times, and mind you don’t look to land or sea before you’ve said the words, and looked upon the glass. Now, be quick, it’s just upon midnight.”

“Rose went faltering down the strip of sand, some twenty yards farther, and there slipping off her clothes, stood shivering and trembling for a moment before she entered the sea. She was between two walls of rock: that on her left hand, some twenty feet high, hid her in deepest shade; that on her right, though much lower, took the whole blaze of the midnight moon. Great festoons of live and purple sea-weed hung from it, shading dark cracks and crevices, fit haunts for all the goblins of the sea.”

– extract from Westward Ho! by Charles Kingsley 1855

A cave was found but hardly big enough to find refuge and certainly wouldn’t hide your parts from the rest of the beach; was there another cave? Kingsley’s book was written over 150 years ago and it was set in Elizabethan times. Much can change at the edge of the land in just one year, let alone 150 or 400. My guess is that there would have been a far greater cave at Marsland Mouth in Kingsley’s day and the small, shallow cave wasn’t it. However one work of fiction can lead to another and I went about photographing the cave I had found but thought about the cave in his novel. 31 frames were shot for the construction of Maiden’s Retreat at 5.07pm over 7 minutes. Rather than using a long lens to prevent distortion and make my images as truthful as possible, as I would normally do, I used a wide-angle lens to distort the perspective and make the cave seem deeper. I was keen to highlight the heart shape of the aperture opening to illustrate the ‘love story’.

The frames were later stitched together in Photoshop.

North Devon Sea Cave

Silver Mine, Combe Martin

Mining for silver, lead, copper, zinc, manganese and limestone has been done at Combe Martin since 1293. This place would have started as a cave, later it would have been mined, but now and for at least the last 100 years it has reverted back to being a cave. Combe Martin Bay is riddled with caves into the steep cliffs and the miners would have had to transport all of their tools and ladders across the rocky shore, in all weathers, every day at low water to work the mines. Then before they were cut off by the incoming tide, take their tools and any of the metals or stone mined back with them to the village.

This image was made to look as truthful as possible, an accurate record of the experience and memory of being in this cave, exploring all of it’s nooks and crannies. 50 frames were shot and later stitched together to make this image. My images can often made up of more than 100 separate photographs, of different exposure, angle of view and framing, all from a fixed point to give the detail from the deepest blacks to the brightest highlights in this extremely high contrast scene. Photoshop is the computer programme of choice for the stitching of images together. This process can take many days to complete because the file size and processing power needed pushes the limits of today’s computer capabilities; but it is not unknown for me to rework an image a year or more later as software, processing power and RAM are updated.

Both constructed photographs are printed on archival paper, mounted on aluminium and protected by acrylic glass.

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.

Adventures on an Ocean Kayak

Inspired by a day I spent last year photographing Sarah Adams for the catalogue to her show at the Maas Gallery in Cork St, London, I promised myself that in 2011 I would get a kayak so that I would be able to experience and photograph the North Devon coast at high tide and access places impossible for me to walk to at low tide. I?ve done a little rowing before as I had a small wooden boat moored on the mud banks of the Torridge minutes from my house; and I?d done a bit of kayaking in Manteo, North Carolina in Mayor Jamie Daniels double sit-on kayak. But it was the thrilling experience of paddling out to sea in preparation for and on the day of the shoot with Sarah that really excited me about the possibilities.

I bought an bright yellow Osprey sit-on Kayak just over a month ago and have been taking it down to the ?East-the-Water? boat ramp as often as possible. This access to the river is minutes from my house and is made swiftly on a shopping trolley conversion. Paddling up and down the river with and against the tide is relatively easy but good for building up experience and body strength. Kayaking in the sea is a different matter entirely.

The first time I tried paddling through the surf I got thrown out of the kayak all the time, especially when paddling into shore with the waves behind me; it was the equivalent of a bucking bronco whose only intent was to have me thrown off into the water. With more experience this got better but I think a good rule here is: if the sea is good for surfers then it?s bad for kayaking!

My first ocean kayak with intent to make some pictures was a couple of weeks ago at Combe Martin. The sun shone and the sea seemed quite calm, just after high tide, with the waves crashing close to the shore. I wore a wetsuit, lifejacket and a pair of old Keens; my camera and tripod were packed into a dry sack with a towel and strapped to the rear of the kayak, I attached my self and the paddle to the kayak too. I was all set to paddle off, sat in the kayak in the seas shallows, adjusting my back support I took my eyes off the surf for a split second and I was rolled over with no apology. I took this as a warning that you can?t relax for a moment, even in small surf as it will throw the kayak over any chance it gets. I got back in, ignoring the comfort and support of the seat back and paddled with all my strength straight at and through the waves at a right angle to the shoreline; not slowing down or taking my eyes of the surf until I was passed them in the relative calm of the undulating waves.

Giving a small promontory of rocks a wide berth I traversed to the right until from out at sea I was looking into the mouth of a cave I had called ?Silver Mine, Combe Martin? on a previous photo trip on a low spring tide. I could see that the back of the cave was clear of the receding tide although it?s entrance had a thick wall of surf. This was what I wanted, what I had seen in my mind?s eye, so with little hesitation I paddled as fast as I was able in a straight line for the mouth of the cave. I hit the pebbly shore at speed leaning right back to help the kayak ride as far into the cave as possible. I climbed out quickly and dragged the kayak to the back of the cave.

The view from here was awesome. All of my senses felt heightened as I observed this familiar cave?s entrance being pounded by the surf and sunshine shining through it from behind. Sometimes with a big wave the walls of the cave would slightly darken, then for a split second, was bathed in an incredible refracted, diffused light as the wave eclipsed the sun.

I dried my hands on the still dry towel and set up my carbon-fibre tripod in the shallow water, attached my camera and made a series of images, exposing the dark inside walls of the cave for a lot longer than the mouth and the incoming breaking waves.

This sketch (above) is the first of I hope many images that I?m hoping to get to make along the North Devon and Cornwall coast at high tide. It?s made from a selection of 60 original frames, and is far from perfect in it?s present state, but I wanted you to see a direction that I?m heading as I?m really pleased with the power and fury of the surf and the way it gives a sublime beauty this coastal landscape. Below is the second sketch image of the cave next-door which I refer to as ‘Lead Mine, Combe Martin’.
All I had to do then was to get back to the beach at Combe Martin?..

around Combe Martin

Most photographers will look forward to sunshine, the weekend, or a time of day like sunrise or sunset. I look forward to the full moon and the new moon and note these in my calendar. A day or two after these moons heralds the highest and lowest tides, or spring tides, which occur every fortnight. A spring low tide, which always falls around 1 or 2pm in North Devon, gives me access to places at the waters edge that would be impossible to get to on any other day or time; places which are often totally hidden under the waves.

At the end of April on such a tide I went to the Combe Martin coast where the following images come from. The inspiration for the trip was an old postcard of Briary Cave at Watermouth. Postcards of caves are rare, this being the first I?d seen, and although I?d photographed this cave before I find that every time I explore a space the image comes out differently. Often this is because of that ever changing tide, light, season and the wave action on the interior of the cave.

The Combe Martin area has a very long history of mining. These 2 images were former mines, which probably starting out as caves before they were mined for silver, lead or manganese. They?re accessible, like many others, from the beach. The interiors of these ex-mines are often are usually rougher and more textured than a cave which is carved out by the force of waves throwing boulders against it?s interior.

This was a rich day?s photography for me. Usually I?d be lucky with one good result, but here I have four; and there were three other failed attempts also. These four images where made from 121 separate photographs in total. The overcast day and wet cave walls helped with the balancing of highlights with shadows. I was forever using bits of my hands as a shield to prevent light flare spilling into my lens, which nearly always points towards the light.

Three of these images will be part of my exhibition at Schooners tea and coffee shop in Appledore for their Visual Arts Festival 3rd ? 6th June. I?m really exited about being a part of the festival which has an appropriate theme of ?Coastline? this year. If you?re reading this and want to know more you can download a flier at the following link: and come and chat with me in Appledore.

The image above is from a huge cave very near to Briary Cave. The headland seen through it is Great Hangman the highest sea cliff in England.

How things change….

I have four new works in the current North Devon Arts, New Year New Work show at Broomhill Art Hotel and five more in a two day group show at Holsworthy Memorial Hall over the weekend of 21st & 22nd Feb for the inaugural Ruby Country Art Expo.

Both of these shows demanded new work, the NDA?s had to have been made during the last year and the Expo?s the last two years. It?s always good to make new work and it gives me the impetus to look at all of my ?work-in-progress? and decide which ones I?m still drawn to and will look good, once completed, in the respective shows.

One of the images I chose to bring on from thumbnail to artwork was Hermit Hole, Grand Canyon, March 2008 (thumbnail on the left/above). This was originated from time based in Tucson in the winter of early 2008. This was the first trip I had hiked below the rim of the Grand Canyon and it was fantastic. A lot of compacted snow and ice at the trail heads but further down it got brighter and warmer. This image, made of 47 separate digital frames, was found on the Hermit Trail, hence its name. It was the edge of what would have been a huge waterfall after a good thunderstorm, but when I was there it was totally dry, but there were the odd pools of water left further down.

Here you see how the image has radically changed through the intentional reconstruction of the many photographic frames to make it as realistic and truthful as possible but without loosing its sense of mystery and place. There is a continual battle as I construct an image between the placing of each ?jigsaw puzzle piece? on my computer screen in Photoshop, making sure each piece is in the right place and at the right angle; with my memory of how the place looked and felt, bearing in mind that I am transforming a three dimensional space, a 180 degree, fish-eye view, of a place onto a two dimensional canvas.

A similar, but not so dramatic difference was noticed with an image for the Ruby show: Striped Wall, Combe Martin. I have taken to making a thumbnail of an image using Photoshop?s ?photomerge? to give me an idea if it ?works? or whether I want to pursue it any further. Photomerge is great for merging up to 5 or 6 frames together (so long as they have been taken on a similar plain and have similar tonal values); but to combine more than this successfully I have to make my frames thumbnail sized.

Another use for this thumbnail is as an image to send to a gallery etc for inclusion in a show or for a press release. Once the image has been accepted I have to put the real work in making the constructed image full size, in this case a file of 750mb to make a fine quality print of up to 1.5metres.