Manchester Art Gallery, 2004

As soon as I saw the negative emerge from the developer I knew I’d got something worthwhile.

I took this photograph when I was still learning about black and white photography. It took me several years before I was able to take another picture quite so satisfying. At the time I was working with film, developing and printing my own images in a darkroom in the utility room at home. As soon as I saw the negative emerge from the developer I knew I’d got something worthwhile.

I still reckon I got lucky, but this image wasn’t a complete fluke. The Gallery consists of two Victorian buildings joined by a glass atrium. I’d spotted the dotted glass ceiling from the floor beneath. I’d seen how the obscured glass let some detail from people walking on it show through. I was pretty sure there was a picture to be had here.

Taking my chances

What I couldn’t be certain of was whether any particular picture would work – no preview screen in those days! In the end I used up the best part of a roll of film to maximise my chances of capturing an interesting group of people, and waiting for them to coincide with the brighter area of light.

In the end the frame that worked best has four people in it positioned away from each other, one slightly ahead of the others, perhaps pointing the way. The gap between them was important – the frames where they are clumped together makes them look like an amorphous mass.

Using the light

I realised that the floor supports would be thrown into silhouette. What hadn’t occurred to me was how the light would affect the dots on the glass. There is just one row of panels where the shading is reversed in a negative effect. And there’s that area of light reappearing in the bottom left corner, just as you think it was fading to black down there.

The one conscious decision I did make was to tilt the camera so the floor supports formed a diagonal grid. It lends a more dynamic, off kilter feel to the image. You’ll probably find yourself tilting your head the first time you look at the picture – a useful tactic for encouraging viewer engagement.

The final print – deceptive simplicity

Manchester Art Gallery, 2004

The frame I chose to print works pretty well. Although the people are obscured, there’s just enough detail left to work out that you’re looking up at them – the feet in focus give it away.

It’s an image with layers to it. The dots, the supports, the people, the light, and not much else. (There’s some detail at the bottom right but it’s now very clear.) You almost have to focus your attention on one layer at a time. The image is so graphic that the elements are strongly separated despite fitting together so well.

It’s a picture that doesn’t give itself up easily. Despite the limited number of elements you have to spend a little time looking at it to work it all out. And to this day, I’m still trying to replicate this approach.

Despite my misgivings about talking too much about camera settings and other configuration matters which aren’t too important, these are the bits of technical information about this picture some folk find useful:

  • Camera: Canon EOS 500N
  • Lens: Canon EF 24-85mm f3.5
  • ISO: 400 using Ilford HP5 film developed in Ilfosol
  • Exposure: No idea – too long ago.
  • I use Lightroom and NIK software for sharpening and noise reduction, but not on the original of this image!

Other backstories

The Night Express, 2016

It’s as though the bridge is being cast in front of your eyes, a trail of molten gold flowing along the raised track.
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Late bar, Venice, 2008

By daylight the scene is nothing to write home about. But at night, nearly midnight, all those extraneous elements and colours just disappeared, and the atmosphere of the Venetian night took over.
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The Farnes, 2019

Going back through my pictures, I’ve been finding it far easier to identify interesting monochrome images to document rather than colour ones. Better? Or just different?
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The Fin, 2011

Way back in 2011, I was fascinated by the buildings in Manchester – mainly the Victorian and Edwardian commercial architecture. There was lots to go at, and much that was in an attractive state of dilapidation. But there’s lots of modern buildings too and I regret not photographing more while I was there.
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Time’s Arrow, 2016

There was something about the line of gravestones not just leading to the door but also taking you back in time as you walk along beside them.
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The Serpents’ View, 2015

Has something just happened? Or is something about to happen? Or perhaps nothing ever happens up here in the waiting room on the roof of the known world.
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