Everyone remembers the last job they finished before lockdown in March 2020. I had been working on mine for over seven months and I was desperate to bring it to a close with a hiking trip to along the French and Spanish coast booked for early March. I never expected it to take half a year, I never expected it to start at all. But what would you do if you received an unsolicited email out of the blue starting:
I was referred to you by AHFAP.
I live in Houston, Texas
The email went on to describe at lengths about how an old Erard grand piano had been bought and restored and how the restorer had discovered the original balance washers underneath the keys which had writing on them, looking like they had been cut out of a newspaper. AHFAP is the Association of Historical and Fine Art Photographers of which I am a member. The email concluded with the interesting paragraph as follows:
I have attached just enough pictures to hopefully spark your interest. I only know AHFAP by reputation and I am neither a photographer nor an artist, but it seemed to me that there is a project here in the making. My original idea was to simply do micro-photography of some of the more interesting pieces and enlarge them to poster size. But after spending some time on-line I thought it worth the time and effort to ask someone with a creative and photographic background to give this some thought.
Would you be interested or do you know someone who might?
The email signature was that of a major partner in an international law firm. I was naturally suspicious, assuming this was some kind of scam or hoax or simply mistaken identity and yet I was also intrigued. I weighed up the pros and cons and could see little reason in ignoring it, so I responded enthusiastically looking for a little more information.
What followed was much email communication and the project became a commission. A day rate was agreed but a final outcome, end date and total budget was kept open. I could see that I was going to have to take more of a collaborative fine art approach to this commission than I would for a commercial job. The piano had been made in London by The French company Erard In the early 1860s, it had been bought almost a year ago from a seller in Italy where it had been sent to England for restoration. It was currently on a slow sea journey across the Atlantic to Texas. The newspaper washers, however, were already in Texas.
The photograph below, taken by the piano restorer, is an example of what was to be an interesting real life crime story from 1861.
My client had already done a little research to try and determine what source the washers had been cut from. Using the British Newspaper Archive online he had been able to search for the legible words on a washer using an approximate year date and had found some of the stories associated with the articles that they had been cut from. The precise source of these stories was to become a major part of this project and started with this story discovered through the British Newspaper Archive from “The Morning Advertiser,” February 7, 1861.
Three days after the first contact I included this paragraph in email that I sent:
I’m sure you will have some kind of budget in mind and perhaps the best way to proceed, once I have the washers in my studio and I am able to make some preliminary sketch work; is to enable me a limited timescale to produce something that you are able to see, and therefore we are able to discuss. I have been reading through your emails again and some of the words that you have written are already inspiring some ideas: I’m interested that this incredibly highly crafted grand piano needed something to bring the keys to a perfect level, and that thing was a simple paper thin washer, cut with a pair of scissors from a London newspaper, which happened to be lying about in the studio. There seems to be something profound in that! I’m also interested in the two-sided nature of these newspaper washers; it may be appropriate to photograph them so that both sides appear in the same image as light is diffused through the paper.
I was going to be opening my studio up for public visits in late September so I organised the delivery of the washers so that I would have them to work on for that time. I was sent some details about the piano restorer in Northumberland with a link to a blog he had written all about restoring this specific piano: AA Piano Tuners blog
On the 13th of September I received a large knock at the door and a box was delivered via FedEx containing the washers.
I’ve been keeping myself busy during coronavirus lockdown, learning to make 3D (three dimensional) models. It’s an outcome of Photogrammetry, the science of making measurements from photographs. The input is the photographs, and the output could be a map, a drawing, a measurement, or in this case a 3D model of a real object or scene. The YouTube videos demonstrating how to do this usually use something like a stone to photograph I make 3D. I decided to set myself a far more complicated challenge which was photographing the Monterey Cypress seedpods In the interactive box below, go ahead and make it full screen, you’ll get a better idea of what it looks like.
This seemed like a natural progression from my constructed images, where I was making photographs of from up to 200 separate photographs, and from my work for ArtUK photographing sculpture in various museums and other cultural institutions within the South West region. This 3D Image is made from 400 separate photographs all taken of The Monterey Cypress seedpods in my studio using flash lighting and an automated turntable. The images were then constructed together using Agisoft Metashape software, which took days but hopefully this will get quicker!
My model is held on a platform website called Sketchfab, the equivalent of YouTube for 3D models. Is the largest international platform for cultural heritage 3D online, and it is used by institutions like the British Museum and the Science Museum etc.
I am expecting that the single image type of documentation that I’ve been used to photographing museum objects will become a thing of the past as 3D models take their place. They can give a virtual viewer a far greater understanding of what an object is actually is like, and there is the ability to zoom in and move around an object just like have you would want to in a physical museum.
I’m looking forward to making a 3D model of have something made of clay next. I might try a complete pot or maybe just a sherd or fragment from Bideford’s rich Elizabethan past.
Monterey Cypress seedpods still image
I haven’t opened my studio to the public for many years as I have been too busy, firstly digitising 10,000 images by James Ravilious and Roger Deakins for the Beaford Archive, and later photographing sculpture for ArtUK. My studio now demonstrates digitisation and also photographing sculpture. Also on display are examples of my personal landscape work; explorations of caves and shipwrecks and also the wild green interior of North Devon. I’m leading a small group workshop, designed specifically for sculptors and ceramicists on Monday 23rd September. During the workshop you’ll learn practically how to photograph your Artwork and get to know your camera better, using natural or household lighting and materials that you will already have in your own studio.
“You have to be in it to win it” – how many times do you say that to yourself and so put time, effort and finance into a project and nothing comes of it? But then another well-known saying comes to mind “all things come to those who wait”…. Well my good artist friend Rosie Burns tipped me off on a competition, leading to an exhibition, which she suggested I should enter as she felt it was perfect for the body of photographs I was working on. It was Earth Photo 2019 organised by Parker Harris and with the biggest sponsors/stakeholders being the Royal Geographical Society and also Forestry England.
I’m very excited that the exhibition “Here: Uncovering North Devon” is opening on Saturday, 4th May at the Burton Art Gallery and Museum in my hometown of Bideford. This will be accumulation of three years work for Beaford Arts Hidden Histories project, of which I spent 18 months digitising 10,000 images by James Ravilious and Roger Deakins. Many of my worked-up images will be in the show alongside oral histories and a whole bunch of workshops talks and activities.
I’m going to be leading the following workshops myself starting on the 5th May where there is an all day workshop making ‘sun prints’. This is a free drop-in workshop from 11am-4pm and doesn’t necessarily need sunshine! Traditional photographic paper is exposed outside but in contact with various translucent objects like leaves or plastic litter etc, photographic chemicals do most of the work here transforming a white sheet of paper into an image which is often rich in warm tones; browns, oranges and yellows.
On bank holiday Monday, 6th May I’m leading a morning session 11am-1pm making photographs with a pinhole camera. Again free, this will take place upstairs in the Kingsley room at the Burton Art Gallery. You’ll ideally need to bring a light tight box for this however, I will have some that you could also use to make real photographic images, in this most primitive of cameras.
In the afternoon 2pm-4 pm you’ll have the opportunity to experience being inside a giant camera obscura, again in the Kingsley room. The room will be completely blacked out and you will be able to see the world projected onto the interior walls.
Near the end of the exhibition, 15th and 16th June, I’m leading a couple of days using traditional photography, using film cameras and a photographic darkroom with enlargers. Here you will get a rare opportunity of making your own print from a duplicate of either a James Ravilious or a Roger Deakins negative.
…an update on this exhibition:
It was really nice to see that I was credited for my digitisation and enhancing skills for each of the images on display!