Kielder Moon Shines at BALTIC 39

On 9th December 2013 I made Kielder Moon, as it happened, on the very day that Kielder Observatory was awarded Dark Sky Status.

There’s another event that coincides with the release of this image — NASA celebrating its 45th anniversary of the 1969 lunar landing.

In recognition of this milestone and to acknowledge the moon’s place in our imaginations and culture, BALTIC 39 is currently staging ‘They Used to Call it the Moon‘, a beautiful exhibition dedicated to our nearest ball of rock, exploring the enduring presence of the moon and the rich iconography of space on the popular imagination of artists.

I was — ahem — over the moon when BALTIC invited me to include my recent creation in the exhibition. I’m very happy to announce that you can now buy numbered, signed and embossed prints directly from BALTIC Shop as well as from my New Prints page…

Kielder Moon, Kielder Observatory, the moon, astronomy, astrophotography, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

‘Kielder Moon’ currently showing in ‘They Used to Call it the Moon’ at BALTIC 39

Kielder Moon, Kielder Observatory, the moon, astronomy, astrophotography, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

Preparing prints for BALTIC Shop…

The Moon, Kielder Observatory, Northumberland National Park

Kielder Moon

Kielder Moon, Kielder Observatory, the moon, astronomy, astrophotography, BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

‘They Used to Call it the Moon’ / List of Works

New Course Charted

In allowing myself a bit of thinking space, it’s been a over month since I last posted — a month that has seen the culmination of so much research, learning and planning.

Looking back over previous posts has been enlightening this afternoon. I can see the mindset I’ve occupied at various points over the last two years, points along a path that I recognised as becoming increasingly unknown and further out of my comfort zone.

At times, my heart’s been in my mouth with a sensation that I can only liken to one I experienced as a young boy, the time I was obliged by my swimming instructor to leap from a 5 metre diving board (you’ll never see me do that again, by the way).

I’ve seen and heard clips from luminaries reassuring me that these feelings are a good thing. So, I’ve trusted them and gone with it.

Finally under my own steam…

A little over two weeks ago, it dawned on me that there was no more planning to be done; I was finally in a position where I’d harvested enough paraphernalia and knowledge to make my first photographs using a Victorian process known as wet plate collodion.

I’ve been micro-blogging about the various milestones on Instagram (yes, I’m back) and on my Facebook Page over recent weeks.

The first day was terrible. By the end of it, I was nearly crying into my collodion. Nothing was working but, with a little help from a friend the following morning, it transpired that my problem was simple — my darkbox (portable darkroom) was too light.

I cobbled together some shutters to reduce the levels of light hitting the interior of the box and made this, my first glass wet plate — an Ambrotype — under my own steam:

wet plate collodion process, half plate, ambrotype, large format

‘Foot of the Castle Keep’, the first successful ambrotype made under my own steam…

The plate will always be very precious to me as it signifies a moment I’ll never forget; the coming together of so many factors and a whole future being unlocked.

It was the first photographic object I’d created with my hands for a very long time without a computer in sight; the first time since my teenage years when I used to tirelessly process film and make prints in my bedroom.

That Sunday, I couldn’t stop making plates until the light finally faded…

wet plate collodion process, half plate, ambrotype, large format

Kath (Half Plate Ambrotype)

Decisions, Decisions…

In returning to my own photography, I chose wet plate collodion for several reasons.

After working as a digital printmaker and retoucher so intensively for the last fourteen years, I wanted to pursue a route that didn’t involve computers. Not only that but one that didn’t require the processing of film or, furthermore, reliance on a lab.

In short, I knew I wanted to produce truly unique — even unreproducible — photographic objects that I’d crafted at every stage with my own hands.

Anybody seeing my new work would know that it was both special and unusual in the modern era.

That pretty much left one route to pursue, the process invented by Frederick Scott Archer in 1851 during the very birth of photography.

The Magician…?

To start with a camera, a piece of glass and a box of chemicals is one thing. To end up with a positive image fixed on that piece of glass is quite something else.

Digital scans of plates posted online as JPEGs can give you an idea but that really is no substitute for seeing them in the flesh.

They carry entrancing — almost holographic — qualities leaving me with the sense that I’ve captured a slice of time, that I’m actually holding some kind of time capsule.

Last weekend, I was working with some friends near the Fish Quay in North Shields. At one point, as I was preparing my next plate, I could hear some chattering voices.

“Look, Mam, it’s a magician!” said one of the girls.

As I stood there in my work apron with my quirky setup around me, I could understand why they came to that initial conclusion.

“Don’t be silly!” replied the mother, “He’s not a magician, he’s a…he’s a…”

I helped her out by telling them I was a photographer but, in a way, that the girls were right, I was also a magician of sorts.

I asked them where they were going.

“We’re going over there to get fish and chips for our tea.”

“OK…” I said and showed them a blank piece of glass.

“…stop by on your way back and I’ll show you this same piece of glass again.”

They seemed excited and intrigued. Sure enough, they stopped off with their fish and chips in hand and I showed them what I’d done to the glass.

“See, Mam, he IS a magician!” they gleefully told their mother who looked at me and smirked with a slight air of concession.

What a treat, I thought, to find myself in a position where I might be perceived to be a magician; such an old process capturing the imagination of children.

What did I show them? This portrait of Paul, the man who’d sold me the camera…

wet plate collodion process, half plate, ambrotype, large format

Paul, the man who sold me my 1905 half plate camera (Half Plate Ambrotype)

Doors opening…

As I come to the end of writing this post, I’m excited for the week ahead.

New doors have been opening ever since I started showing my first plates just two weeks ago.

People have already been asking if they can have their portraits made like that too and I’m thrilled to have received an invitation from Julian Calverley to hook up with him mid-week on the Isle of Skye.

I’ll be making a portrait or two of Julian for his upcoming book, capturing him at work in one of his favourite stomping grounds.

Of course, I can’t wait to make some landscapes while I’m there too, so I’m hoping I’ll have some beautiful work to show you on my return…

Sketch for a Darkbox

A year ago, I wouldn’t have imagined writing a post like this…

I’m now very close to making wet plates under my own steam and very excited about it too. It’s taken months of planning, research and patient gathering of the necessary paraphernalia.

I’ve got a beautiful camera lined up — a mahogany, brass-bound Thornton & Pickard half plate camera made around 1905 — as well as a plethora of knick knacks, largely sourced by trawling the web, not least eBay.

I mentioned in my last post that my mind is often whirring so, for years now, I’ve kept a detailed notebook for ideas and manifestation.

It’s a great way for me to release my mind of the burden of so much thinking — if you don’t keep a notebook yourself, I thoroughly recommend it!

If nothing else, it’s really satisfying to flick back through it and see the birth of new ideas that have since come to fruition.

Now, to make wet plates in the field, I’m going to need some kind of mobile darkroom facility. A bit like this but not quite like this:

dark tent, wet plate collodion, photography

Tente de photographe

Over time, I expect to create many incarnations of varying sizes ranging from boxes to vehicles. However, for now, I need something that’s suitable for half plate (4.75 x 6.5″).

Towards the start of the year, after seeing a Bastard Box in the superb Facebook Group, Collodion Bastards, I started thinking about ideas for my own darkbox.

Finally, this week, construction of the prototype is underway. I’ve never been too good at drawing, but I’ll share one of my sketches with you anyway so you can see how(ish) it will look…

Wet Plate Collodion, darkbox, sketch

22nd January 2014 — sketching ideas for my first wet plate collodion darkbox…

Here are some basic specifications:

  • 75 x 41 x 45cm;
  • Plywood construction;
  • White interior;
  • Rubylith windows on three sides and in the lid;
  • Dark sleeves in one of the long sides (adapted from an old changing bag);
  • Polyethylene catch-all drip tray in the base;
  • Interior LED strips behind Rubylith for added illumination when required.

Next up, photographs of the finished item. If you like what you see, I’m sure we’ll be happy to take commissions..!

A New Device, A New Language, A New Frontier

That’s the claim from photographer Adam Magyar. He’s right, yet still he’s modest.

When this lecture was waved over my screen, it was accompanied by much of the usual cyberbole.

However, my source was sound and of good repute, so I’m glad I gave up 20 minutes of my life to it. I think you will be too…

Chasing Shadows

We find ourselves in the midst of an extremely topical Northern Lights season once again, with comparisons potentially being made to The Great Solar Storm of 1859.

Aurora Borealis, Great Solar Storm of 1859, Boulogne Pier, Northern Lights

‘The Aurora Borealis, seen from the pier, Boulogne’, an etching I found on eBay a while back made around the time of The Great Solar Storm of 1859…

If that were to happen again, it would surely look pretty but it would also wreak havoc in a world that now relies so heavily on an electronic infrastructure.

As I was reminded last night, chasing the Aurora Borealis can be hard work — sometimes like chasing shadows rather than fantastical laser light shows.

The lure of glorious rewards keeps me motivated but, as hope fizzled out once again in the small hours, I’m glad I appreciated my beginner’s luck chasing the Aurora in 2012.

Here’s are the words I wrote at the time on another site o’ mine

 

Holy Aurora! The Northern Lights Venture South

[23rd January 2012]

 

Last night, I received a phone call from my Aurora-chasing friend, Reed Ingram Weir.

Apparently, the facts and figures were all pointing to a stellar show by The Northern Lights.

If I was to finally witness this natural phenomenon, now would be the time to jump in the car and make the sixty five mile journey north on the A1.

It would have been all too easy to settle in for the night on a Sunday evening but I was soon experiencing an intense urge to make the trip.

Aware that digital cameras can pick up early signs of the Aurora much more easily than the human eye, I quickly nipped to the top of the house to photograph the Northern sky.

The giveaway green haze hovering above the Newcastle horizon convinced me that it was time to go and meet Reed on the Holy Island causeway:

aurora borealis, northern lights, newcastle upon tyne, north east england

A faint green haze above the city, the moment I knew I had to drive North…

I grabbed a friend who I knew would also cherish the experience, though neither of us could ever have been prepared for the scene that greeted us.

Nearing the turn-off for Holy Island, the sky had become alive with huge columns of light, folding and weaving like waves of fabric.

Words can barely describe the emotion that overcame me — it was all I could do to keep the car on the road with such a spectacle taking place in the cold air above us.

Vast slabs of vertical green light gave the Northumberland night sky an epic cathedral-like appearance and all for a fleeting fifteen minutes or so…

As we arrived on the dark causeway, I must confess to feeling a little jittery.

The light show was beginning to fade already but it still looked sensational as it receded.  I managed to capture these images while the performance played out:

aurora borealis, northern lights, northumberland, holy island, north east england

Gentle scenes from the Holy Island causeway as we arrived…

aurora borealis, northern lights, northumberland, holy island, north east england

Vertical shafts of light began to appear once more…

aurora borealis, northern lights, northumberland, holy island, north east england

…the sky then appeared to fold and crease like fabric above the glow of Berwick upon Tweed.

In all honesty, the intensity of green captured by my camera surprised me.  However, it seemed to match up with the photographs of others.

When watching this beautiful show, I didn’t see green, I saw a bluey-silvery-grey. I thought that reciprocity failure might have come into play, so I tried some very short exposures.

Yes, the images were very under-exposed but the green colour still prevailed.  Even the ‘quick and dirty’ capture made at ISO 3200 (the image at the top of this post) immediately showed the Aurora-green piercing through the urban haze.

It seems that more intense displays further north, in and around locations such as Tromsø, literally drench the surroundings in a glorious green light.

Thankfully, at times, we were able to see the green for ourselves during pinpricks of higher intensity.

Indeed, as we were arriving, I’ve already mentioned the great slabs of green light standing tall like huge, futuristic, architectural pillars in the sky.

So, this sparked a further spine-tingling question in my mind: When the intensity levels of the Aurora are reduced further South, why is that we observe a bluey-silvery-grey colour, yet we point a digital camera at the Aurora and the intense green prevails?

Is the camera able to render information that we cannot perceive at these lower intensities?  I’m sure there will be answers to this but I simply enjoyed pondering them while standing in that icy cold theatre.

I expect Professor Brian Cox would know the answer. If you know, feel free to enlighten us by leaving a comment in the box at the end of this post!

And so, the curtain gradually fell on the performance. The graceful, pulsing light faded away yet still lingered, maintaining a hold on us and making it very difficult to set off home.

aurora borealis, northern lights, northumberland, holy island, north east england

The performance draws to a close with one last needle of brilliant light.

And let’s not forget the beautiful sky to the South, so dense that Orion (often obvious at this time of year) is almost lost among its neighbours:

night sky, stars, orion, northumberland, holy island, north east england

The stunning Northumberland night sky with Orion in the centre.

Some say that viewing the Aurora Borealis is life-changing.

Would I agree? Yes, without a doubt.

I haven’t been able to shake the experiences of last night from my mind, not that I’ve wanted to.

Furthermore, it’s taken me most of the day in grabbed moments here and there to attempt to put those experiences into words.

I’m still not sure that I’ve succeeded.

As I put my boys to bed this evening, I peered North from the window once more. Nothing.

The Aurora Borealis was gone for the moment but I shall never look at the sky in the same way again, day or night.

I love this video clip below, the Aurora Borealis and Australis as seen from the International Space Station.

It seems appropriate to sign off from this post by leaving you with this beautiful footage…

Chapter Two: New Beginnings

A few weeks ago, I mentioned that this video clip had a new relevance for me.

I’ve been asking myself some pretty straight questions recently. As a result, my eyes and mind have been opened up to a photographic sub-culture that I always knew existed but only ever dreamed about — until now…

On Thursday, this culminated in making my first ever glass Wet Plate.

And here it is:

Paul Cordes, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Keys by Jack Lowe

From left to right, 5 minutes in the life of Paul Cordes, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Keys

It’s a portrait of the team who rallied round to share their wisdom with me — new folks in my life to whom I’m extremely appreciative.

You’ll see the plate’s a bit of a mess due to my novice-like pouring technique but it still has a certain something, don’t you think?

Paul Cordes, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Keys by Jack Lowe

Detail from my first Wet Plate (Alastair Cook)

Paul Cordes, Alastair Cook, Jonathan Keys by Jack Lowe

Edge detail from my first Wet Plate — this one’s for Paul Kenny!

Actually, I’m in there too. During the five minute exposure (it was pretty dark), I strolled slowly in front of the lens to make sure I wasn’t left out.

The plate also now features in Bastards’ First Plate Gallery at Collodion Bastards (Wet Plate Work of Questionable Parentage).

My sincere thanks to Alastair Cook, Jonathan Keys and Paul Cordes for their help, great company and for rounding off the year perfectly.

Afterwards, we decamped for cake and coffee at Heaton Perk to take away the taste of collodion in the back of our throats.

Bliss.

With best wishes to everyone for 2014, when there’ll be more to report on these new beginnings…

Kielder’s Golden Darkness

More money may have been spent in one year bailing out the banks than has ever been spent on scientific research (yes, in all fields, ever), but there’s one shimmering product of that research nestled in deepest Northumberland, chest deservedly puffed with pride…

As I cranked up the radio over breakfast yesterday, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing — some really good news.

I joined just in time to hear that Northumberland National Park had finally been awarded Dark Sky Status by the International Dark-Sky Association. In fact, the highest possible accolade — Gold Tier Dark Sky status.

Why is this particularly great news? Because a key Northumberland National Park attraction, positioned very close to the English/Scottish border, is Kielder Observatory.

Coincidentally, right on the night of their big announcement, I’d booked to attend another of the observatory’s legendary Jupiter Nights — my third visit in the last year or so.

Jupiter and Four Moons, Kielder Observatory, Northumberland National Park

Jupiter and four of its moons, captured by ITE — iPhone To Eyepiece 😉

My companion for the journey, visiting from Korea, had never seen a true night sky. 

Due to the terrible air pollution in her home near Seoul, the most she had ever seen was one or two stars attempting to break through the smog.

So, with such a great facility nearby, how could I not suggest the journey to Kielder to experience the night sky at its finest?

A Patchy Start…

On arrival, conditions were mixed and, at one point, heavy cloud completely obscured the sky.

Through one of the powerful telescopes, we’d managed an early glimpse of Jupiter along with its moons but it would be great to enjoy more.

Thankfully, the biting cold wind parted the clouds, unveiling the night sky — complete with a faint Milky Way and shooting stars to boot.

As the perfect half moon set in the west, the sky became darker and darker, the stars stronger and stronger — a near perfect night to observe the heavens and remind ourselves that we’re a ball of rock tumbling around in organised chaos. A gift.

The Moon, Kielder Observatory, Northumberland National Park

The Moon from Kielder Observatory, again captured by ITE…

A Breath of Fresh Air…

The award of Gold Tier Dark Sky Status is huge for the North East.

Northumberland National Park is one of only a handful of Dark Skies across the globe. Moreover, it’s the darkest sky in Europe and the third biggest Dark Sky in the world.

Gary Fildes can now press on confidently with his ambitious plans, which include a state-of-the-art planetarium (for those nights when the cloud-cover lingers) and the installation of a one-metre aperture telescope.

Not only that, 1500 square kilometres of Northumbrian countryside will now be protected from the vagaries of increased light pollution — any planning applications will absolutely have to take into account the area’s newly-awarded status.

All-in-all, a breath of fresh air to see less being recognised as so much more

PRINTS AVAILABLE!

I’ve made Kielder Moon into a beautiful, affordable 6×6 inch print on 10×8 inch paper — you can find it on this dedicated page.