Today was the last day that the Ironbridge Gorge Museums would be open until March. I thought it would be a good opportunity to get up early and investigate the Tar Tunnels, a man made construction running 1000 yards into the hill at Coalport in the Ironbridge Gorge.
I’d seen a few photographs of this place and have been meaning to take a look since I moved here. The tunnel was built in 1787 as part of a coal mine, it’s about 5 ft high, widening to 6ft after the first 50 yards and lined entirely in brick. A railway track runs the length of the tunnel, but it is closed to the public after about 150 metres.
The story is that as the miners drilled into the hill, they noticed tar (bitumen) oozing from the walls. In fact you can see to the sides of the tunnel, quite large pools of liquid tar, gathering in natural caverns. The Victorians used this to waterproof boats that carried coal to Ironbridge where it fired furnaces used in constructing metalwork. Later, once the automobile had begun to make its presence felt, this stuff was used by John McAdam to provide a binding agent for his revolutionary road covering.
It is said that the people who made their living mining this area were permanently stained by constant exposure to this treacly substance. They were known locally as the “Black Imps”. I wondered how many cancers went unobserved or whether this naturally occurring substance is carcinogenic?
To the technical stuff: This place is pretty dark so I used a tripod and made a series of long exposures at f8 at various points along the tunnel, the aim was to get as much in focus as possible, front to back, along with maximum sharpness. Conscious of the likelihood of other people arriving to explore the site, I exposed for about 20 seconds adjusting the ISO between 100 and 400 to make those exposures possible. I underexposed a couple of stops less than the meter suggested, in order to minimise the effect of the lights. A little processing in Lightroom to get some more contrast and a tiny bit more saturation to emphasise the yellowness of the brickwork and invoke the atmosphere of the 1780’s.
The traces of the industrial revolution are everywhere in the woods surrounding Ironbridge, I’ve walked many miles now exploring the paths which thread through the forest, frightening the odd deer into crashing through the undergrowth, and very rarely meeting any other human beings. The paths close to the river follow the old railway line that used to bring fuel to the power station. Along this track I have found the remains of old Lime Kilns used to convert the Limestone of Lincoln Hill into Quicklime for use in agriculture. A quarry, once used to supply the stone with which Buildwas Abbey is built, is now completely reclaimed by nature.
The story here is one of regeneration, I recall my friend Dana Wiehl telling me about the hills of New England, completely denuded of trees by the industrialists of the North, providing building materials and fuel for the civil war. Now unrecognisable, cloaked in some of the most beautiful forests I’ve seen. The Forests here remind me very much of that part of America, dense and sprawling, spilling over the edge of the Gorge onto the Shropshire plain. Yet here, Ironbridge Power Station nestles into the valley bottom supplying electricity for Birmingham. A strangely beautiful juxtaposition of ancient and modern.
There’s a theme beginning to emerge, it’s not the theme I had in mind when I moved here, but I’m finding traces of industry in these hills and forests, not just the industrial revolution, but modern artefacts. Satellite dishes and power stations. The contrast between the uniformity of the things left here by humans and the apparently timeless landscape with it’s rivers, woods and plains is fascinating and I’m finding myself photographing it more and more.
It’s the beginning of a new project and as usual I’m filled with optimism and not a little trepidation. I’m looking forward to the Autumn and even the Winter, because the land and the light will change, offering new perspectives and fresh challenges.
Two days before I left for America at the beginning of the month, I moved permanently out of Brighton and parachuted, temporarily courtesy of my partner Viv’s parents, into the rather wonderful countryside of Shropshire.
So, no longer a Brighton based Photographer – rather, given the amount of travel I’m doing this year a British Photographer!
New York was an absolute blast, freezing cold I nonetheless managed to get two shots I’ve been kicking myself for missing on other occasions – the view from the Rockefeller Centre and the interior of Grand Central Station.
The Rockefeller centre is one of those trips that you just have to grit your teeth and do. It’s expensive, full of tourists and the resident photographer will try and persuade you to pose for a grisly humorous portrait against a photographed backdrop but there really is no better viewpoint. The Empire State runs it close, but taking pictures there is a nightmare – dirty glass protects you from falling off the thing and of course you can’t get the Empire State into the shot. The big advantage of “Top of the Rock” is there is aa viewing platform in the centre of the tower that raises you some ten feet above the protecting glass screens. There are also gaps between the screens large enough to get a 24-70mm lens through.
The other must grab shot that I’ve failed to grab in four previous visits is the interior of Grand Central Station. This has been photographed so many times it’s virtually impossible to find a new angle. I chose the long exposure route using a wide angle lens. I decided to shoot diagonally and rely on the natural movement of the people to fill the frame.
I processed this particular shot in Silver Efex Pro to get the high key effect – it was a very gloomy day and I wanted to be able to pick out the people in the final rendering.
After a couple of days in New York, I moved on to San Jose where I was due to work last week. I had a whole weekend to explore and having not visited the west coast since I was seventeen, there was a whole lot to explore. I discovered a beach in Santa Cruz that boasts a natural arch and spent a whole morning taking carefully composed landscapes. None of which turned out as good as this – a shot taken rather casually on my way off the beach!
I used a wide angle lens held really low, at sand level for this shot. I took about six frames, moving about to try and get the people separated from the rock. I was really pleased with this one because my attention was on the rock and the family to the right. I hadn’t noticed the little girl to the left and she really makes the picture in my opinion. There’s a rather obvious echo of the arch itself and the stance of the mother, but the little girl pointing adds balance, depth and a little bit of a mystery to the picture.
So am I going to settle down to a life of rural bliss in Blighty? The chance would be a fine thing! I’m jetting off to the South of France on Sunday, Dublin the week after. This is proving to be a great year for both travel and photography. The only regret I have is missing my friends at the Brighton & Hove Camera Club – if that club were a lager it would definitely be a Heineken!