Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Anatomy of a picture: Sam Gandalf

As Sam Gandalf and his boy slowly made their way down Rochester High Street on the weekend of the Sweeps' festival, I knew I had time to get a good shot which would include not only them and their cart but enough context to show how out-of-time they looked. They might well have stepped out of HG Wells' time machine - or Dr Who's - as they trundled down the road, the soot falling from them more imagined than real.

But then everything we see is as much imagined as real, as I'm going to be talking about in future articles.

Once the people in front of them had passed, I had my shot. There was time enough for more but the one was enough. My camera was in Av mode and there was plenty of light and I knew from previous experience that f/4 at that distance would give them plenty of context. I'd already checked my other settings and the street, calculating in advance the framing and where the other people in the picture would be as I pressed the shutter release.

I was happy enough with the shot but in post-processing I had an idea to do something a little more than just tweaking levels, saturation and sharpness - the three 'legs' of the post-processing tripod, just as aperture, shutter speed and ISO are the three 'legs' of the basic photography tripod.

I knew it would take time to get it right, but I thought that the picture was worth it. In fact, my decision to do all of the post-processing in Lightroom 2.3 made the job quite a bit more time-consuming. But I thought that Lightroom would be up to the job and I wanted to know for certain.

I like my photos to bring out the essence of what I'm looking at, and that essence is not inherent in the thing, person or situation being portrayed; instead we each bring our own thoughts, personality, prejudices, outlook, frames, state of mind - indeed, our entire background as a human into the picture. The essence I perceive in my subject is of my own making.

At the age of 58 I'm old enough to have seen the original chimney sweeps - albeit the last of them - in the 50s, before the first of the UK's Clean Air Acts. And my memories of that time are of cold, grey, and choking smog - well, some of the time, at least. And my grandparent's time, when sweeps and their boys were abundant wasn't, for me, sepia as we might think of the Victorian and post-Victorian era but a special kind of faded yellow-brown: the brown of the pictures in my Nan's biscuit tin.

And this is how I wanted Gandalf and his boy to appear to you, the viewer, as very real and in no way ghostly refugees from a bygone time. And their juxtaposition with people of the modern age - a girl in blue and a man in a pink top, unthinkable in Gandalf's time - is made even more striking to me by the fact that apparently only one other person can see them. Rochester itself is a strange mixture of old and new; it's history is very much that of Dickens, and Gandalf and the boy are very much characters from some Dickensian novel.

Are Gandalf and his boy real? How can we tell? The boy and his cart at least seem to cast shadows even if Gandalf himself is shadowless. He is already more ghostly than the boy, already from an older time than him. His appearance reminds me that our train passed through Gravesend on the way to Rochester. Perhaps Gandalf will be returning to Gravesend at the end of the day...

Later on I'll be showing you how I got this effect using Lightroom 2.3 and talking about how you can get a similar effect in Photoshop or Elements.

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