Going with the Flow: Ancient Monument Photography and the Changeable British Weather
It all seemed so simple. Pick an interesting photo location, book accommodation, then go shoot amazing images. If only. Let me start at the beginning with an invitation to a birthday party from an old friend. Of course, he lives in Leicestershire and I live in Cornwall over 300 miles apart. Then, there is my mother, 88 years old and widowed 2 years ago. She needs help and assistance these days from her sons. So, lets add that to the itinerary. And if I'm travelling, what could I photograph along the way? At the suggestion of my long-suffering partner I was given permission to book a stop-over along the way. But, where?? So after looking at the map and considering various locations, I initially settled on the Cotswolds, then my eye strayed to the nearby Avebury Stone Circle. I had photographed this previously, but in poor midday light whilst in motorcycle gear, so images although representative were not special. Once I saw the location, this set my imagination alight and I could visualise moody images of the Menhirs realised in either contrasty mono, or luscious colour. So that was it, the target was Avebury, possibly taking in other locations along the way. I then had to find accommodation near enough to allow dawn or sunset image-making. This proved more challenging than I had thought with the usual cheap, low-value chain hotels surprisingly expensive per night. £90 for a Premier Inn is not reasonable. So I cast my net wider and found the Angel in Royal Wootton Bassett, a small town just north of Avebury normally known for their reverent displays at military repatriations. This was still on the expensive end for a B&B, but also looked way better than a Premier Inn, so I booked it. And I'm glad I did. More on that later.
That was some time back and fast forward to the present day where after a long spell of warm sunny weather, the weather had broken. Not to torrential rain, or looming clouds, but a blanket of grey. Not ideal for photography. However, when on location, there are essentially only two choices. Shoot, or shoot off. so not surprisingly, I chose to shoot. After all, I had not been out shooting with either Large, or Medium Format for several weeks. Further perusal of the weather forecast was not encouraging, so I dumped my initial plan to do a dawn shoot at Avebury in favour of an early morning shoot in the local environs where I had noticed a splendid Cherry tree in full bloom set amongst lichen covered gravestones. So I set my alarm for 6am the next morning in anticipation of cool blue hour shots. In actual fact, I got up well before 6am, courtesy of a disturbed night's sleep. This was partly in anticipation and partly a consequence of a strange bed. Still, I was off out good and early in search of images. It was only 06:30am, but already the town was astir. A paperboy was just setting off on his bike, dog walkers taking their pooches for an early morning constitutional and the bakery over the road putting buns in their oven. Traffic was already building up and convoys of army trucks were rumbling along the high street. The atmosphere remained grey and heavy, with no signs of clouds or blue sky, but there was little wind. I arrived at St. Bartholomew's Church and made ready to setup my Bronica ETRS, only to find that my main tripod remained in my car. and dawn was now breaking. The floodlights illuminating the building would soon be turned out. A quick dash back and the tripod retrieved just in time to grab an image before the lights went out, but by then dawn was already over and the drama was lost. However, the beautiful Cherry tree, draped over lichen encrusted gravestones remained and that now became my main target, so I spent a happy hour or so developing compositions featuring the pristine white blooms in combination with the weathered stonework of the Church and the numerous memorials of the Church yard. Ultimately however my stomach and breakfast called me back to the warmth of my room and a hearty meal. So, one shoot completed.
(BTW: The images below are from a digital shoot I did in the evening as the Film ones are not yet developed.)
I decided that Avebury would be the next location and that I would spend the day there with the hope that some light would materialise at sunset. If that seemed likely, I would stay for the whole day. So, I got in my car and commenced the 9.8mile drive from Royal Wootton Bassett. As ever on these trips, my photographic eye is always on the lookout for compositions although in the grey light from the overcast sky, there was little initially of promise. However, about 3 miles further on whilst passing through a village called Broad Town, I spotted a potential candidate in the shape of an almost collapsed derelict barn complete with corrugated iron roof, barbed wire and thickets of Brambles. So I parked my car a little further on and disinterred the bag containing my Bronica ETRS loaded with Portra 400 film. returning to the little barn, I started framing up compositions, only to be interrupted by a curious dog-walking local who quite reasonably asked me what I was doing. So, I explained my fascination with things had seemed to outlive their useful purpose and in particular the sadness of it. This seemed to resonate and this then developed into a longer conversation around rich vs poor and the ever-rising cost of living in such locations. Eventually, he left and I was able to make a couple of semi-experimental images. At least I had broken my photographic duck for the day and I headed onward to Avebury with renewed purpose. On arrival, I parked up at the main car park only to be somewhat daunted by the £7 all-day fee. However, I was assured that I could pay using a card at the visitor centre, so I got kitted up with my new Vanguard 48BF backpack containing my Intrepid 4x5 camera, 125mm and new 90mm Fujinon lenses plus film holders and all necessary sundries. This also included my Leofoto tripod securely attached to the side, plus vlogging gear and the Manfrotto Befree tripod for my smartphone and Gimbal. quite a load, but once on my back with correctly adjusted straps, quite manageable. So I proceeded to the visitor centre and on the way decided to re-join the National trust as at least the £7 fee would be refunded. So I spoke with the very polite young woman at the centre which was a very impressive Tythe barn and filled in all the necessary forms giving me access to NT properties. Feeling in need of refreshments, I then ventured into the nearby café in search of coffee, only to be served a cup of brown oily water which I duly returned to the servery where I was informed that following complaints the coffee was too strong, the machine had been reset. Oh dear, but on receipt of my Paddington stare the staff put in an extra shot of coffee making it drinkable if not excellent. Once again the staff were all polite and very helpful.
Sitting outside drinking the coffee and reflecting on the possibilities and how to access them led to me conclude that I should concentrate on one or two simple compositions. My reasoning process was this:
The light is poor, but at least even and unlikely to fluctuate widely over the day meaning I would be better refining compositions rather than waiting for the 'good light'.
The amount of distracting artefacts such as fences, signs and paths in close proximity to the stones reduces my compositional options. Scanning the negatives into Photoshop, would allow instant removal of such, but it pricks at my self-image as an analogue photographer to do that.
The site is a popular one for good reason and people cannot be reasonably asked to stand and wait, or move on while some bloke fiddles around with an absurd camera. So, locations that were less frequented would allow me the time to make all the adjustments needed so the final images would be worthy of the effort involved.
All this meant that a thorough recce of the site was needed which I then proceeded to do. This took some time, but I eventually worked out two compositions which met the above brief. One involved an image of three Menhirs aligned in a gentle curve. Behind were a group of trees and in the far distance the only visible evidence of modern Human intervention; a path. The second was at the distant far end of the site involving a small group of Menhirs and in the distance a coppice or small wood atop a hill.
So to action! I gathered my thoughts, a quick but tasteless sandwich and headed off to start making images. I started at the very far end of the site which was less cluttered and frequented. Even there, my presence attracted attention, first from a woman with her children, then a young couple. After explaining to them that I wasn't in a rush and that I could wait for them, they moved past, although one child who tried to 'modify' my composition did receive a rebuke! The difficulty here, as at other parts of the site was in trying to maintain an authentic representation of the stones and their relationship to the landscape whilst eliminating as much modern clutter as possible. For this image I put the larger stone in the foreground with the other, smaller stones leading the eye away and finally to clumps of distant trees on the horizon. Despite some minor issues with my microphone, I think this part of the day worked well.
I then packed away my kit in the new Vanguard backpack which was proving a pleasure to use. and headed back to the other location I had recc'ed out. This was a little more challenging in that the three stones had to be aligned so that there was space between them whilst still placing them in context within the landscape and with minimal modern features. The weather however was beginning to improve and glimpses of Sun were appearing which was encouraging. So, once I had captured that Image, I went in search of another potential composition and after exploring near the nearby Pub/Hotel I found one which promised to be the best of the day with an almost recumbent Menhir in the Foreground, another more vertical one just beyond and in the distance a further, squat one backed by a row of trees. Hazy sunlight was now appearing intermittently, so the stones had a little more contrast and definition. So, I brought out the new Fujinon 90mm lens and polished off the film I had brought with me. In total for the day, that meant 7 sheets, four in colour and three mono. Cost-wise then my most expensive day.
The following day, I decided to try and catch early morning light and that almost proved a disastrous decision for me, but fortunately, I do have an image made using my trusty Fuji XT-2 (top) to show for it. The light was good at the crucial moment, but my going there was at high personal cost. Fortunately no lasting damage to me or my equipment was incurred although there was quite an impact on my self-esteem and dignity due to my lack of planning.